With pressure mounting on ministers to accede to Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals to the holidays, sources suggest the government may be looking to extend its holiday activity and food (HAF) programme as one way of mitigating the damage without appearing to perform yet another U-turn.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, highlighted the scheme during a Commons debate last week, suggesting the government was looking at how the programme could be rolled out further. “It has been very successful in the previous two years and we would like to see how we can do more in the future,” he said.
Political manoeuvrings aside, the scheme is regarded as a success story. It provides disadvantaged children with food and activities during the six-week summer break, and has been widely praised by experts.
However, it is a small pilot scheme operating in only 17 local authorities in England at a cost of £9m. Last year it catered for 50,000 disadvantaged children during the summer weeks – a small fraction of the 1.4 million children who are eligible for free school meals and risk going hungry over the school holidays.
Greta Defeyter, a professor in developmental psychology at Northumbria University and an expert in food poverty, is a vociferous supporter of the HAF scheme and believes it would not be difficult to extend it across the country. However, that would not address the problem of holiday hunger during half-terms, Christmas and Easter. Defeyter says free school meal vouchers should be distributed as an “emergency sticking plaster” to help parents in the immediate crisis. It would cost the government £21m a week to provide £15 weekly vouchers to disadvantaged families.
Defeyter says the government should be planning for the long term. “The [HAF] scheme has been running for three years. It’s pretty well embedded to be scaled up, and the advantage in running this programme over free school meal vouchers is, it has all the additional benefits encapsulated in the programme.
Because it’s funded through the Department for Education, the food complies with school food standards, so children are having healthy, nutritious meals. It provides childcare support for parents, so they can seek work. It provides additional activities to attenuate learning loss and it helps with children’s social skills and wellbeing.”
According to Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy, which is backed by Marcus Rashford and also recommends extending the HAF scheme, it would cost an additional £200m a year to roll out the programme to every local authority across England to help an additional 1.1 million children. “The additional educational opportunity provided by the programme would also give children from less privileged families a chance to catch up on the learning they lost during lockdown,” said Dimbleby.
Compared with the £12bn spent on England’s substandard test-and-trace programme, the £39bn spent on the furlough scheme between April and September, and the £500m spent on the “eat out to help out” scheme, £200m to make sure no child goes to bed hungry does not seem an excessive price to pay. But the Treasury may have other ideas.