Free holiday clubs will have to provide “healthy food and enriching activities to children and young people”. Image: Lukas / Pexels
For low-income families, the summer holidays come with huge challenges. Over those six weeks, parents and carers have to hunt for affordable childcare and many struggle to get by without free school meals.
The government is not directly funding food packages or meal vouchers this year – instead, councils have been given funding to help the most vulnerable families in the best way they see fit. It means it is something of a postcode lottery as to what help you receive.
One of the government’s solutions is the holiday activities and food programme (HAF), with local councils offering free places for children who are usually eligible for free school meals. The scheme was piloted in 2018 and 2019 and officially launched last year, with the government rolling it out again in 2022. But what actually is it and is your child eligible?
These free holiday clubs have to provide “healthy food and enriching activities to children and young people” – but that looks different depending on where you live. Councils are working with a range of organisations to provide free spots on their schemes. This could be at a drama group, dance camp, sports club or other play groups.
Alternatively, authorities may be running their own programme. Get in touch with your local council to find out exactly what holiday scheme you can sign your kids up for this summer.
How long does the holiday activities and food programme last?
If the school holidays are six full weeks, children will be offered at least 16 days of childcare. Each day has to be at least four hours long and cover a four-week period.
If the school holidays are shorter than six weeks, councils only need to offer a three-week programme – for a minimum of 12 days. But these authorities will be offering an extra four days over the summer holidays.
Is my child eligible for the holiday programme?
Any child who is eligible for free school meals will be offered a place on the holiday activities and food programme. Free school meals are available if a child’s parents are receiving one of the following benefits:
Income-based jobseeker’s allowance
State pension guarantee credit
Income-related employment and support allowance
Child tax credit, as long as they don’t also receive working tax credit and earn no more than £16,190 (£16,105 in Scotland)
Working tax credit four week ‘run-on’ after stopping work
Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
Universal credit (if you applied after April 2018, your income must be less than £7,400 a year after tax and not including benefits. If you applied for UC after April 2018, there is no income threshold)
If your child receives universal infant free school meals because they are in Year 1 or 2, they won’t necessarily be eligible for the holiday programme. Parents must also be receiving one of the benefits listed above.
Local authorities are encouraged to make the holiday programmes available to any children not receiving free school meals who can pay to attend. It depends on the demand in the area as to what is available for children and it’s up to the council to make that decision.
Councils are allowed to use 15 per cent of the funding to provide holiday club places for children who are not receiving free school meals but who might benefit. This could include vulnerable children, children in care, children who have low attendance rates at school and children who are at risk of exclusion.
How do I get an HAF code and sign up to the programme?
You need to re-register to access HAF activities every new holiday season, even if you have accessed the scheme previously. Families who are eligible for free school meals should receive information about how to apply for the scheme from their local council.
Each child should be allocated an HAF code which confirms your eligibility and is used to book your place on the programme. Every council has a slightly different process, with most open for bookings and staying so until all the spots are full.
If you haven’t received information about signing your child up to the programme and you think you might be eligible, you should contact your local council in the first instance.
What are the criticisms of the holiday activities and food programme?
The Mayor’s Fund for London carried out a study into the programme in 2021. The charity said funding is “insufficient to maintain a viable service without ‘top up’ funding from other sources, such as other local authority funding pots or fundraising through charitable means”.
Funding does not cover the cost of recruiting or training staff, the charity warned. This means children with special education needs and social, emotional and mental health needs “cannot be supported properly”.
The authors of the report said: “The offer available is subject to a postcode lottery whereby boroughs that can invest more from their own budgets – or who have the benefit of long-standing youth organisations who are more successful with charity fundraising – are able to provide a much better offer than those who are starting from scratch building a service on the government’s shoestring budget.”
Campaigners have said 16 four-hour days are not enough to cover childcare costs for the full six-week summer holidays. The Mayor’s Fund for London added: “Six weeks of provision out of 13 school holidays a year is just not good enough.
“Every week that passes without some support, children are going without activities, social contact, safe spaces and good food, and their stressed families are trying hard but struggling to keep their children entertained, happy and well fed.”
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