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12 January, 2021 Open access

CPAG calls on government to urgently prioritise cash payments to families as replacement for free school meals during Covid-19 lockdown

Open letter to Education Secretary also calls on government to retain £20 uplift to universal credit, increase child benefit by £10 per child, and expand eligibility for free school meals

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has called on the government to urgently prioritise cash payments to families as a replacement for free school meals during the current national Covid-19 lockdown.

In an open letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, CPAG and co-signatory Children North East (CNE) highlight that, during May 2020, their Cost of the School Day Project carried out extensive research with children and families living in low-income households across the UK to understand their experiences of home learning during lockdown, what was working well, and what additional support was needed.

Based on their work, and with the coronavirus pandemic having forced schools across England to close their doors to the majority of pupils once more, CPAG and CNE say that -

'....  importantly, this time round we are better equipped with an understanding of what pupils and families need while they are at home - and what type of support they value. We have learnt vital lessons from the first lockdown through speaking to families about their experiences, and we urge the government to use the principles laid out in this letter to guide its decisions, while most pupils are trying to access their education from home.'

The two organisations go on to set out a 'child and family-centred framework for lockdown 2021' - including that support for children and families living on a low income must allow families choice, control and flexibility - before saying that, as a matter of urgency, the government should -

'Taking a ‘cash-first’ approach has the greatest benefits for families living in low-income households as it allows choice, accessibility, discretion and safety - which are all highly valued by families. Our research showed that 81 per cent of families receiving direct payments to their bank accounts said these were working extremely or very well for them, while satisfaction levels were much lower for other solutions such as vouchers, food deliveries and ‘grab bags’.'

'During the first lockdown 40 per cent of low-income families were missing at least one essential resource, with ICT equipment such as devices, internet and printers being the most common items that families lacked... Although schools are now open to pupils who can’t access leaning at home, this is not a long-term solution to the problem - and it puts families and communities at a greater risk of catching the virus. Together we must speak to families, understand what they need and plug the gaps without delay.'

'The Department for Education must work with other government departments to provide more financial support directly to families with children that are struggling. At a bare minimum, the £20 per week uplift to universal credit must be retained, but families with children need greater support. Increasing child benefit by £10 per week per child and expanding free school meals eligibility are both policies that will work to improve educational outcomes for pupils in low-income households and reduce the attainment gap.'

The open letter from CPAG and CNE to the Education Secretary is available from cpag.org.uk