Labour has warned that the government is effectively scrapping universal free school meals for primary school pupils during coronavirus.
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has written to Gavin Williamson with concerns that the vital provision will become a “postcode lottery”.
In the letter she said: “It appears that the Government has re-imposed means-testing of infant free school meals and effectively scrapped the policy of universal free school meals.”
While infant schools are closed they are not obliged to provide free meals to all pupils but have instead been told to concentrate on those most in need.
But Ms Rayner is concerned that some who need the support will fall through the gaps because official guidance leaves it up to head teachers to decide who should benefit.
It also tells schools to “concentrate their effort and resources on those who are eligible for benefits-related free school meals”.
Ms Rayner is concerned that the guidelines will “exclude hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children”.
The guidelines essential drop the commitment for universal free school meals for 5-7-year-olds.
It states: “There is no requirement to continue to provide universal infant free school meals to pupils in reception, year 1, or year 2 who are unable to attend school.”
Instead schools are urged to concentrate on those who are eligible for benefits-related free school meals.
Ms Rayner said: “I believe there is a strong case to maintain universal provision at infant level, at least through providing vouchers.
“But if there is a need to target, it cannot be right that so many families suffering in-work poverty are excluded.
“I urge you, as a minimum, to make all children in families receiving Universal Credit eligible for free school meals at all stages of schooling for the duration of the current crisis.”
Schools will be able to continue to provide meals for collection or delivery themselves, but where this is not possible the voucher system will ensure children do not lose out.
Families will be issued with either an electronic voucher or gift card worth £15, to spend at supermarkets including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S.
During the pandemic children eligible for free school meals in England will be able to claim weekly shopping vouchers while schools are closed.
Headteachers have warned that even with the vouchers, some parents will struggle to feed their children.
But the Department for Education says the rate exceeds that normally paid to schools for free school meals.