Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:33 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West 9:33 pm, 18th January 2021

Children cannot learn when they are hungry, and children who are malnourished cannot possibly reach their potential or lead happy and fulfilling lives. Last week, we saw another appalling episode in the Government’s approach to the wellbeing of children in the delivery of food parcels. The parcels, which were nearly identical to the Government guidance on food parcel content, were an insult. It is time that the Government treated families with respect and gave parents the money that they need to feed their children. The Government’s refusal to provide free school meals over half-term is a real blow to families up and down the country.

The Government are failing families over food, and they are failing them too over access to online learning. They dithered over school closures. On 3 January, the Prime Minister said that primary schoolchildren should “absolutely” be in school in those areas where schools are open; then the very next day, he changed his mind and announced that schools across England must move to remote provision from the following day except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Yet again, this Government heaped pressure on families, leaving them practically no time to sort out childcare, and yet again, they created chaos for teachers and school support staff, giving them insufficient time to prepare. The Government have been warned repeatedly about the very large number of children and young people who do not have a device and access to the internet. Hundreds of thousands of pupils are still waiting to get connected. Instead of delivering the equipment that pupils need, the Government redefined those children

“who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study)” as vulnerable. As a result, there has been a massive increase in the number of children attending schools during this lockdown. A primary school teacher in my constituency wrote to me, saying,

“Overall we have 50% of children in school and my class actually has 70% of children in school…I am working to meet the needs of my class and then coming home to meet the needs of my home learners”.

The Government are causing unnecessary stress to teachers, pupils and parents. They are also putting at risk the public health programme by increasing the risk of infection in our communities. What is more, they are putting our less affluent communities at the highest increased risk of infection, fuelling existing health inequalities. Did the Government not think this through? Their disregard for the health outcomes of those who are disadvantaged, and cannot afford space or laptops for their children and the people who teach them, is shameful.

Instead of reclassifying children as vulnerable, the Government should make sure that every child has internet access at home if they need it. They must make sure that pupils who are eligible for free school meals get the support that they need all year round, and set out an ambitious strategy to tackle child poverty that addresses low pay and insecure work. They must rebuild the social security system, and finally, they must put the health and wellbeing of children at the heart of Government policy.