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Government extends free school breakfast programme until 2023

The new £24m funding for the national school breakfast programme will help more children but has been described as 'pitiful' by Labour.

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson takes part in the Hidden Harms Summit in May 2020. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street

Vulnerable children in some of the UK’s most deprived areas will continue to receive free breakfasts at school after the Government extended funding for the scheme for another two years.

The £24 million will keep the national school breakfast programme, which began as a pilot in 2018 but was due to end this summer, running in England until 2023. Current providers Magic Breakfast and Family Action have so far supported almost 2,500 schools across the country through the programme, and hundreds of thousands of children.

But Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, described the new funding as “pitiful” and accused the Conservative Government of a lack of ambition when it comes to helping children through the pandemic.

She said: “This is a pitiful response to Labour’s call for a universal breakfast club offer for every child. This funding is likely to provide breakfast club support to just four per cent of children which is simply not good enough.”

Green repeated Labour’s calls for more breakfast clubs for children “to recover the learning and social development they have lost during the pandemic.”

“From providing a measly 43p per child per day for educational catch-up to offering no additional funding for schools in the Budget, the Conservatives have shown they are simply not ambitious about children’s recovery from this pandemic,” she added.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson defended the Government’s record and he was committed to supporting “the most vulnerable children”.

He said: “A good breakfast is vital to giving children the boost they need in the morning so they start school ready to learn. That’s why we are continuing our Breakfast Clubs Programme for pupils across England so that those children in need of extra support do not go without the most important meal of the day.

“Throughout this pandemic our priority has been supporting the most vulnerable children – that’s why we extended support for free school meals for eligible pupils when they were learning from home, expanded our Holiday Activities and Food programme to run all over the country this year and introduced the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to keep families warm and well-fed, all of which ensures targeted support is there for the children who need it most.”

The news will come as welcome relief to campaigners who had asked for an extension to the funding to be included in the Spring Budget on March 3. David Holmes, chief executive of Family Action, one of the organisations delivering the programme, said it had made a “real, positive” difference to pupils, helping them to concentrate, improving their readiness to learn, behaviour and wellbeing”.

Magic Breakfast have also been approached for comment after the news was seemingly announced in two sentences posted to the Department for Education Twitter account.

Free school meals have been a hot topic over the last year, as campaigning led by England footballer Marcus Rashford twice forced the Government to u-turn on its refusal to feed vulnerable children through the school holidays. Thirty per cent of kids had families struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic, before Covid-19 pushed hundreds of thousands more into child poverty.

Over 1,000 businesses sprang into action to provide free lunches for children in the October half term and in January furious parents shared photos online of the spartan meal packs the government had provided in place of school lunches into the third lockdown.

The number of vulnerable children fed by Magic Breakfast went up by a third in the second half of 2020 to 170,000, the charity said, and it campaigned for an extension of the funding to be included in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Spring Budget.

The Government has poured hundreds of billions into keeping the economy afloat throughout the pandemic. But unemployment still reached a five-year high in February and charities have warned of an approaching “cliff edge” in September when the furlough scheme ends and Universal Credit will be cut by £20 per week.

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