Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:51 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 9:51 pm, 18th January 2021

This Government want to see children, young people and adults fully connected so that they can access our world-class education, and we recognise the importance of a nutritious lunch to help children concentrate while they learn. I thank all the Members who have spoken in tonight’s debate. Many of them have taken the time to thank staff in schools, and I agree with them. I say thank you to our schools, but I also thank our early years, our colleges, our social workers who support vulnerable children, our families—and I say thank you to our children, too.

We must all do everything we can to support those who need help most at this time. On free school meals, the Prime Minister has said again and again that no child should go hungry because of this pandemic, and every single Member of this House agrees. Children should not miss out on a school lunch because school is closed to them. The contents of some of the lunch parcels that we saw on social media last week were completely unacceptable. Lunch parcels should be balanced and nutritious. The Secretary of State for Education and I immediately met leading school food suppliers to demand urgent action to make sure that lunch parcels are of a high standard.

We are in a global pandemic and no one should be profiteering on free school meal contracts, but some Opposition Members suggested that those contracts were with the Government. That is simply not true. Schools are responsible for their relationships with their own caterers—through the local authority if the local authority runs schools. Schools are doing a phenomenal job at this time. If parents have a problem with a school meal parcel, they should contact the school first to resolve it, but if that does not sort it out, we have set up a hotline so that parents can call us. The small number of complaints that we have already received have been individually investigated and sorted.

Schools can decide whether to offer lunch parcels or local vouchers, or use the national voucher scheme. Some schools and parents prefer those parcels, because that helps them keep in contact at this challenging time. The all-party parliamentary group on school food recommends and supports the use of lunch parcels. That all-party group is chaired by a Labour MP.[This section has been corrected on 21 January 2021, column 6MC — read correction]

It is up to schools to decide how they want to sort out their own provision, but our national voucher scheme has reopened today. As of 5 o’clock this evening, more than 6,500 orders had been placed by schools, worth a total of £12.7 million. Parents have already started converting over £1.1 million-worth of codes into supermarket vouchers. That is well ahead of the schedule expected.

The current advice on school meals covers the time up to half-term, because that is the period when we currently know schools will for many children remain restricted. However, I want to be absolutely clear that children will be receiving food over February half-term. We started planning for that many months ago when we announced the £170 million covid winter grant scheme. Many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine), for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson) spoke about how it is working in their own constituencies with parcels, vouchers or holiday clubs. The covid winter grant scheme is there to support the most vulnerable families, including children not of school age. It is there to help not only with food, but with other essentials such as energy bills. It is there to help with food for the whole day, not just at lunchtime. It is there for families and individuals who need extra support at this time. It was there in the Christmas holidays and it will be there through term-time. It will be there at half-term.

We have also announced our brilliant holiday activities and food programme, which will run all across the country from next Easter. My right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, my hon. Friend Christian Wakeford, my right hon. Friend Damian Hinds and my hon. Friend Tom Hunt all praised the scheme. It means that eligible children in every local authority area will be able to access healthy food and take part in fun activities over Easter, summer and Christmas if they need it—food, fun and friendship.

On technology, during the summer term we delivered more than 220,000 laptops and tablets, prioritising children with a social worker, care leavers and disadvantaged 10-year-olds. We have now distributed over three quarters of a million. Just last week, the Government confirmed the purchase of a further 300,000, which will take the total number of laptops and tablets we will be distributing up to £1.3 million. That is on top of the 2.9 million that were already owned by schools before the start of the pandemic. We are literally ordering and delivering laptops and other devices as fast as manufacturers can make them, at a time of peak global demand. Some 139,000 devices were delivered between 4 and 11 January—the first week of term. It is a phenomenal logistical effort.

Carol Monaghan asked about British Telecom. We ran a pilot in partnership with BT to provide our children and young people with free access to a BT wi-fi hotspot, but we did not extend it because the pilot found that it did not suitably meet the needs of children and young people for a reliable and consistent internet connection. However, we have partnered with all the UK’s leading mobile providers, including BT, to provide free data uplifts to disadvantaged families. We have provided 54,000 4G wireless routers and we will continue to provide more. They have a roaming sim card so the router can find the strongest signal for 4G locally, making them more reliable even in areas where the signal may not be strong. We have extended our technology programme to 16 and 17-year-olds, many of whom already got devices through the bursary scheme. We are also extending more technology to our adult learners, because we support everyone who wants to access education at any stage of life.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich, and for Henley (John Howell), mentioned the importance of accessibility for those with special educational needs and disabilities. There has been massive progress and innovation in this area during the pandemic, which will make a huge difference for some of our most vulnerable children.

The best place for children and young people to learn is at school, and I am very proud that we are one of the few countries that have kept schools open for our most vulnerable children. We know that it is not possible for all to attend at this time, but we are doing everything in our power to make remote education a reality for all. No child should go hungry because of the pandemic. We are prepared. We are providing free school meals to children over the half-term and in the holidays ahead. Our Government projects do that and so much more.