Headteachers were left ‘fuming’ when the Department of Education sent them a letter reminding them of the importance of ‘nutritious’ school meals – two days after the Government rejected Marcus Rashford’s campaign to provide free meals to children facing poverty during the school holidays.
The Labour motion for free school meals during non-term time was rejected by 322 votes to 261 on Wednesday, as families across the country face financial hardship during the coronavirus pandemic.
Children’s minister Vicky Ford and junior health minister Jo Churchill sent a letter to headteachers on Friday morning encouraging them to offer hot meals to schoolchildren.
The letter said: ‘The vast majority of children are in school and we understand schools may be finding it hard at this time to provide children with their usual hot meal at lunchtime especially given the need to minimise contact between bubbles.
‘Furthermore, higher numbers of parents may also be sending their children in with a packed lunch.
‘Schools have flexibility within the School Food Standards around which products/foods they serve across the school week. There is no legal requirement that meals should be hot, however we do encourage this and ask all schools to routinely be offering a varied hot meal option to pupils.
‘It is much harder to comply with the School Food Standards through the provision of cold food alone. I would urge you all to work closely with your caterers to make every effort to ensure children are receiving a healthy and nutritious hot meal at school.’
Andy Byers, headteacher at Framwellgate School Durham, said there was anger and ‘plenty of incredulity’ at the timing of the letter.
He tweeted: ‘Without a hint of irony, Headteachers have received a letter today from the children’s minister reminding us about food standards and our responsibilities to provide students with nutritious food and hot meals. Honestly!’
Many local authorities, pubs, cafes and restaurants have announced they will step in and provide food for children during the October half-term.
Joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) Kevin Courtney said: ‘Local authorities, schools and businesses in communities across the country are now stepping in where Parliament has not. This is not, however, sustainable long term and the funding needs to come from Government.
‘Adding insult to injury the children’s minister has sent out a letter to heads today reminding them of the importance of promoting healthy eating in schools. You couldn’t make it up. Learn the lesson and reverse the decision is the only way Boris Johnson must now proceed.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said: ‘All schools have gone to extraordinary lengths to get children back into education this term, and the letter was first and foremost to thank school staff for their efforts in getting kitchens open and once again providing meals to pupils, including those eligible for benefits-related free meals.
‘We recognise the pressures in schools during this pandemic and so we wanted to reassure them that we will not be introducing changes to the School Food Standards at this time but that we expect the current robust standards to still be followed and implemented.’
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