Written by Lauren Parsons
Illustrated by Prince Pretzl
Over the last few weeks, the people of the UK have witnessed the abysmal quality of free school meals that have been given out to children. From photos posted to Twitter to the many outraged news articles, it’s been difficult to miss.
It seems that Boris has not learnt from the last two instances where his party were called out on their Dickensian refusal to extend the free school meals programme in the summer and winter holidays. Once again, they have tried to hide behind a labyrinth of tedious bureaucracy in order to delay any real progress in the reprehensible problem of feeding children across the country.
In a press release by the National Education Union (NEU), the Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney explains that the Government’s switching between services will “increase the risk of children going hungry, parents having to venture out of the house and the unnecessary public health risk that would create.”
It would also cause unnecessary strain on local authorities to “recreate a brand new system of supplying Free School Meals for the week of half-term using the Covid Winter Grant Scheme.” Still in the premature days of 2021 and with February half-term less than a month away, we have yet again been presented with another case of the government shedding all responsibility for providing the bare necessities for some of our most vulnerable children.
According to statistics from the Office of National Statistics, from 2019/2020, 1.44 million children nationally qualify for free school meals, an increase of 13.4% from 2018/2019. Indeed, numbers show currently over 8 million children currently in primary or secondary education, which means up to 17.3% of schoolchildren across the country are relying on free school meals and are now faced with a half-term fraught with worry over where their next meal will come from.
“The individuals who are meant to represent us, fumble excuses as to why they consistently vote against providing basic sustenance for our most vulnerable citizens.”
A report released by the Department for Education shows the areas with the highest populations of children eligible for Free School Meals are in London, West Midlands, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber. The area with the highest proportion is North East, an area with the lowest rate of employment nationally and highest increasing levels of child poverty. When faced with these statistics it is easy to identify links between the catastrophic effects of austerity in the poorest regions across the UK and the interrelation between rates of unemployment and child poverty which lead to dependence on Free School Meals.
The repercussions of such disadvantages to schoolchildren are shown clearly through a study conducted by Teach First which finds across 8 regions in the UK (excluding London and Outer London) the percentage of disadvantaged pupils achieving 9-4 in English and Maths GCSE is 40-44%. These dismal numbers exemplify the disastrous effects of lack of funding, attention and appropriate practices and programmes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed, leading to diminutive chances of employment and further education.
However, what the Free School Meals controversy illuminates is the irony of the Government’s incompetent handling of the social and educational problems that have been aggravated by their implemented programme of austerity. It took Marcus Rashford’s continued denouncements of such incompetence to effect incremental changes and in turn projected Rashford as a figurehead of popular protest and action.
Whilst his role has been extremely vital and cogent, there is something disconcerting in a public figure, not popularly elected, who is more representative of the people’s sense of justice and moral consciousness than the current (popularly elected, sigh) party in power. What Rashford is doing shouldn’t have to be deemed admiral, it should be considered any individual’s moral and social obligation. It shouldn’t have even got to the stage where it seems the only person with power to hold the Government to account and jolt the country into considering and caring about any of this is someone with the money and fame to garner enough attention.
Although some exasperated parents have been highlighting the appalling standard of the food packages from the Government by outing them on Twitter. Interestingly, the company used for providing the food packages, Compass Group, has seen their own fair share of controversies. These include the possible exposure of prisoners to Listeria Monocytogenes through food supplied to several Candian correctional facilities in 2008 to the Horse Meat Scandal of 2013, the 2015 overcharging of low quality school meals in Washington D.C and finally some delicious allegations of corruption thrown in for good measure.
There is something truly unsettling about the legitimacy of a Government whose outsourcing to less than reputable companies and clear ineptitudes in supporting the general welfare of its citizens can be easily exposed via 280 characters on a social media platform.
The culmination of such events shows the floundering deficiencies of out of touch political parties headed by blundering MPs with no understanding of the plight of their constituents. We are only in the first month of 2021 and already life is imitating the beginning of any good dystopian, Sci-Fi novel.
Here we have yet more proof of the individuals who are meant to represent us, fumbling excuses of why they consistently vote against providing basic sustenance for our most vulnerable citizens on a weekday TV breakfast show. Don’t look too deeply into Matt Hancock’s eyes, you’ll realise there is absolutely nothing behind them.
We are living through a national tragedy as the Government shirks responsibility for its citizens wellbeing but as a population there are things we can do, namely grassroots, community-based initiatives, charities and food distributing programmes. The Trussell Trust Website is the best place to start when thinking about donations and grassroots volunteering, their find a food bank page means you can search for information and contact details of your local food banks. There is also an interactive map on End Child Food Poverty’s website which shows all the providers of emergency food support across the UK.
Lauren is in her third year of studying History of Art and Anthropology at Oxford Brookes while also working part-time as a Barista. She is also part of the team @ Cuntry Living, an intersectional Feminist zine based in Oxford.
Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous