Every child should have the opportunities they need to grow into successful and fulfilled adults
Levelling up - spreading opportunities equally
Over the summer I have been delighted to visit some of the Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programmes that are being delivered across Penistone and Stocksbridge. The government funded scheme, which runs during school holidays, provides a wide range of exciting activities and a nutritious meal to all children who are eligible for free school meals.
The HAF programme offers disadvantaged children the chance to take part in activities like swimming, sports camps and drama - activities that many of their wealthier peers take for granted. Crucially, the provision of a filling and nutritious meal alongside the programme of activities helps to ensure that children who might otherwise go without are properly fed throughout the holidays.
The issue of food poverty in the UK has been widely talked about during the pandemic, and rightly so. Before COVID, it was already the case that too many families on free school meals struggled to feed their children during the school holidays, and this was exacerbated when schools were forced to close in March 2020 as the first COVID wave struck.
With schools shut to all but a very few pupils, the Government had to quickly find a way of making sure that children in low-income families could still receive a free meal each day, even though they were now learning from home. The Department for Education (DfE) asked schools to provide food parcels for vulnerable families (paid for in full via government funding). However, for some schools this wasn’t practical, and so the DfE introduced out a voucher scheme whereby schools could provide supermarket vouchers to parents to pay for food in lieu of a food parcel.
The scale and speed of the voucher scheme rollout, whilst impressive, meant there were some teething problems, but in a time of national crisis I felt the scheme provided an effective emergency solution that offered vital support to many families.
With plans to return to normal schooling in September 2020, the final supermarket vouchers were issued at the start of last year’s school summer holidays, and when schools re-opened the voucher scheme ended, and free school meals were once again provided in school to all eligible children.
It’s important to recognise that a supermarket voucher can never be a substitute for a nutritious meal provided in an educational setting, and that the voucher scheme was therefore, quite rightly, only ever a temporary solution. However, the pandemic drew greater attention to the need for more and better support for those who struggle to feed their children during the school holidays and so I welcome the Government initiatives that have since been rolled out, two of which I mention here:
- Introduction of the HAF programme – free healthy food and physical activities for eligible children with funding for at least four hours a day, four days a week supported by £220 million in government funding.
- Commissioning of a new strategy for tackling food poverty – Henry Dimbleby, who has previously contributed to the School Food Plan, was commissioned to design a wide ranging strategy to help ensure no one faces food poverty.
Unfortunately, the Official Opposition saw the ending of the Supermarket voucher scheme as a political opportunity, and brought a debate to Parliament, three days before October half-term 2020 (and three months after the decision to end the scheme had been made). Whilst this debate had no practical significance – it was merely a parliamentary discussion, with no power to make law or change policy – the Labour party and its supporters used the debate to allege that the Government and Conservative MPs had voted to end free school meals and, by inference, that we didn’t care about children living in poverty.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and there has never been any suggestion that this Government or any other will end the free school meals programme. No MP, on either side of the House, wants to end free school meals and under the Conservative Government, the eligibility for free school meals has widened and more children than ever now have access to this support. I had the opportunity to speak in the debate about poverty, its complex causes, and the importance of doing everything we can to tackle it and you can watch my speech here.
But a Conservative approach to tackling poverty doesn’t just look to provide money to those who need it (though of course this is important) but also to provide opportunity. It’s not just food that can be in short supply over the holidays for children in low-income families; it’s also access to vital educational opportunities like swimming, music lessons, outdoor activities and cultural experiences that wealthier children take for granted. These experiences are just as foundational for future success as formal education, and it is the lack of these activities that has been shown to be responsible for poorer children losing educational progress during the long summer holidays.
That’s why I so strongly support the HAF programme, which offers not only a good meal but also a wide range of enriching activities to children and young people who are eligible for free school meals. It was great to speak to the programme’s organisers in both Sheffield and Barnsley, who have done an incredible job in setting up so many wonderful clubs and activities, and contacting every eligible family in our area to tell them what’s on offer.
I will be urging the Government to build on the success of this year’s HAF programme, and I’ll be making sure I share the positive comments and suggestions for improvement that have been made by Sheffield and Barnsley Councils.
As a Conservative I believe that every child should have the opportunities they need to grow into successful and fulfilled adults. The Government’s commitment to ‘Levelling Up’ recognises that we must do more to make sure that disadvantaged children have access to these vital opportunities, and the Holiday Activities and Food scheme is a great example of how we are delivering on this commitment.