Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:21 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Gary Sambrook Gary Sambrook Conservative, Birmingham, Northfield 9:21 pm, 18th January 2021

Last week, I emailed all the headteachers in my Birmingham, Northfield constituency to see what the situation was like on the ground in respect of free school meals and laptops. I just want to go through some of their responses. Many reported to me that parents preferred the voucher system that is coming back this week, as opposed to the packages, because the vouchers allow greater flexibility and choice. There can be a stark difference between schools. Some schools said they were preparing over 100 packages, but only 20 were being picked up; I think the voucher system was having a near 100% take-up rate, so it is really important that it is restarting this week.

The vast majority of the schools said that they were using the city council’s Cityserve scheme, and there were a range of views about the adequacy of those food packages, from “okay” to “severely inadequate”. Unfortunately, many teachers have really had to push back on the city council to ensure that they are getting value for money, with some estimating that the £15 packages were really only worth about £4. Birmingham City Council has often been very critical of the Government’s approach, and it is about time that its words and actions met in the middle, but it did also step up to the mark.

On laptop provision, there was quite a bit of disparity between schools. Some had received 100% of their allocation. Others had only a few, but were expecting big deliveries this week. I will be following up with them later this week to ensure that they get what they have been allocated. One headteacher suggested that schools should be given a budget so that they could buy some laptops themselves. That would add some capability to the procurement system, as they could probably find some local providers. Some of my infant schools suggested that some laptops be allowed for use in infant schools, because of the three hours of remote learning each day.

I thank the many teachers who have been working extremely hard to ensure that children are being educated at the moment, balancing the very difficult task of teaching in a classroom and digitally. They have been working incredibly hard, and everybody in the House recognises that work. I also thank the many parents who are juggling working from home with helping to home school their children. I was talking to my best friend Michaela last night, and we were giggling at some of the things she was having to teach her young boys because it took us back to our school days. It is very difficult—I probably would not remember some of it myself now—but it is important that those parents are going above and beyond every day. We must all be thankful to them.

On the whole, the Government have got this absolutely right. It is incredibly important that we tackle these issues head-on, and provide these vital food vouchers and laptops for children.