By Anneka Shah, BA Chinese (Modern and Classical)
4 January 2021 saw Britain’s most vulnerable children put in further hardship in terms of food security and access to education with Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson’s decision to close schools in England.
The decision to move to remote learning was taken as a measure to combat the new UK variant of the coronavirus that risks overwhelming the National Health Service (NHS).
The PM highlighted in his address to the nation that the government ‘will provide extra support to ensure that pupils entitled to free school meals will continue to receive them’ and ‘distribute more devices to support remote education.’ However, evidence has come to light that suggests these promises have not been met.
On 11 January, one parent took to Twitter highlighting the inadequate replacement her child received for their usual hot school meals. The food box sent to her home consisted of a limited amount and variety of food that was expected to last for 10 days. When she totalled up the cost of the products from the supermarket it came to £5.22, as opposed to the £30 which she understood public funds were allocated for. This and many other similar cases expressed by frustrated parents have been brought to the government’s attention by footballer Marcus Rashford, who previously campaigned against the government’s decision to scrap free school meals during the first lockdown in 2020.
Rashford told Twitter that ‘We MUST do better. This is 2021’, emphasising that it was hard to expect children to study at home with these substandard provisions.
The PM and the Department for Education responded in agreement that this was unacceptable, with the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stating that he was ‘absolutely disgusted’ by the images of the subpar food parcels parents had been receiving during his interview with the BBC on the matter. This also triggered the government’s re-introduction of meal vouchers from 18 January, which offers families £15 of supermarket vouchers and can be chosen by schools as an alternative to food boxes.
The Labour party has since called for the resignation of Williamson and Labour MP Wes Streeting stated his party refuses to ‘be bystanders to the level of failure…seen from the Department of Education’ during a Commons discussion on 19 January.
Chartwells, the company that provides the food boxes to local authorities, have since apologised. They claim that the box circulated on Twitter was only meant to last 5 days and did not cost the government £30, but agreed it did not meet their standards due to the short notice they had to put together and distribute the parcels. In an attempt to rectify their mistakes, they have vowed to provide free breakfast to those school children receiving free meals from 25 January, as well as an option to receive lunch meals during the half-term.
Amid this scandal, supermarkets have stepped in to offer support, with the likes of Tesco adding an additional £1 of fruit and vegetables to any government voucher as well as Marks and Spencer offering an extra £5 of food for every voucher.
Too many of these children, who are already not getting access to the proper nutrition, are also facing an exasperated situation with difficulties due to remote learning. The Office of Communications estimates that up to 1.8 million children do not have the technology to participate in remote learning, with reports of many cases of siblings sharing one device and essays being written on mobile phones.
“…one mother expressed her frustration, saying ‘I’m not financially able to get [my daughter] a computer. She shouldn’t have to fall so far behind due to our financial situation.’”
In an open letter to Gavin Williamson, written by the Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East, one mother expressed her frustration, saying: ‘I’m not financially able to get [my daughter] a computer. She shouldn’t have to fall so far behind due to our financial situation.’
The government has decided to allow children without access to the internet or computer devices to continue to go into schools. However, many parents feel that this is unfair, and it puts their families at increased risk of catching the virus.
SOAS, University of London graduate and rugby union player Maro Itoje was inspired by Rashford’s campaign. Itoje told Good Morning Britain that he plans to ‘leverage his contact base’ to lessen the ‘digital divide’ among Britain’s disadvantaged children. He also urged tech and broadband ‘to step up’ to ensure the nation’s children have ‘quality data’ – an aspect of the digital divide many activists have highlighted is ‘too often overlooked.’
Photo caption: The contents of a food parcel, expected to replace ten hot meals for Britain’s impoverished children (Credit: Twitter/Roadside Mum).