Calls for government to protect children’s free school meals in face of ‘Aero’ concrete closures

Cost of living crisis means need for support even more ‘acute’ than during pandemic, charities warn

Andy Gregory
Friday 01 September 2023 15:03 BST
Nick Gibb confirms new evidence found in school crumbling concrete scandal

The government has been urged to “do everything possible” to ensure that eligible children continue to receive free meals at schools affected by the discovery of collapse-prone concrete.

More than 100 schools and colleges have been advised to at least partially close buildings containing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) after several incidents this summer sparked concern, inluding a beam collapsing without warning on school premises, schools minister Nick Gibb said.

The Department for Education has said that a “minority” will need to “either fully or partially relocate” to alternative accommodation while safety measures are installed.

With schools informed of the decision just days before the end of the summer holidays, charities have warned that there must be no disruption to free school meals, and that ministers must ensure all children are able to access remote lessons if classroom closures force them to learn at home.

Experts warned of the need to avoid a repeat of the pandemic, “when the already-large attainment gap grew even wider”.

“We are very concerned that children in disadvantaged areas whose schools have been closed because of the Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) issue will be affected particularly badly,” said Russell Hobby, chief executive at the educational charity Teach First.

“They may lack the digital resources and the stable learning environment needed to study at home and, for those receiving free school meals, may not get the nourishment they need when their schools are closed.

“We call on the government to do everything possible to ensure children in disadvantaged areas who have been affected by this situation receive additional support.

Children must still be provided with free school meals, charities have said (AFP via Getty Images)

“We don’t want to see a repeat of what happened during the pandemic when the already-large attainment gap grew even wider, with those from communities facing deprivation falling further behind their wealthier peers.”

Stephanie Slater, founder of the charity School Food Matters, also drew parallels with the pandemic, saying: “During lockdown, the government soon recognised the need to provide families eligible for free school meals with support to feed their children.”

Noting that “this need has not diminished”, Ms Slater said: “In fact, in the context of the cost of living crisis, the need to support low-income families has become more acute.”

In addition to the 104 schools and colleges impacted – with ministers conceding that number could increase – there are more than 50 which have “already been supported to put mitigations in place this year”, the government said.

In one school, where the kitchen’s concrete roof is being replaced with a safer material, Sheffield City Council has said that “alternative meal arrangements will be in place from next week” while the work is being carried out.

The works at Abbey Lane Primary School ‘will have minimal impact’, a councillor has said (PA)

The renovations at Abbey Lane Primary School, in Woodseats, began in July and will continue until December at a cost of £620,000.

Dawn Dale, chair of the council’s education policy committee, said: “We have worked with parents and carers at Abbey Lane Primary School over the last few months to reassure them that RAAC will have minimal impact.

“Alternative meal arrangements will be in place from next week as the replaced roofing covers the kitchen area. This information has been communicated to parents and carers of children who attend the school.”

The government’s RAAC guidance states that schools should continue to offer free lunches for pupils not in classrooms and offer extra-curricular activities “wherever possible”, while remote learning “should only ever be considered as a last resort and for a short period of time where the alternative would be no education provision”.

Zoe McIntyre, the charity Food Foundation’s advocacy manager, said: “The hugely positive impact free school meals have on children’s health, educational outcomes and wellbeing (lasting into adulthood) is proven.

“That’s why we are supportive of guidance that provision must continue during the school closures and why we are calling for eligibility to be extended to all families, targeting children in households receiving Universal Credit as a priority.

“It wouldn’t just be a win for children and families, but for political parties too: our research shows it is hugely popular with voters across parties and it would motivate swing voters.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “As set out in our guidance, we expect schools to continue to provide free school meals to eligible pupils, even if they are receiving remote education.

“We continue to work with schools and local authorities to minimise the impact of any essential closures.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in