AoC: ‘It might help’ if colleges given access to DfE free meal vouchers

“It might help” colleges if they were allowed to access the government’s new free school meal vouchers scheme, their membership organisation has said.

From today, schools can provide every eligible child with a weekly shopping voucher worth £15 to spend at supermarkets while they’re closed due to coronavirus.

Parents will receive the voucher through their child’s school, which can then be redeemed online via a code, or sent to their house as a gift card and used at stores such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S.

But the scheme is not open to colleges – a decision which one FE leader has labelled as “extremely disappointing” and shows the government has “deemed post-16 students as less in need of financial support to eat at this time”.

The average college has “hundreds” of 16 to 18-year-olds who would normally receive free meals, according to the Association of Colleges.

The Department for Education told FE Week that FE institutions are already themselves supporting many students who are entitled to free meals, and it will provide further guidance for them on this in the coming days.

It is not clear whether any financial support, like what is being made available to schools, will be open to college students.

AoC’s chief executive, David Hughes, said: “Just like schools, the shutdown of colleges has left hundreds of 16 to 18-year-olds in every college who would normally receive free meals at risk of going hungry.

“Colleges have been making their own arrangements to ensure their students access to regular meals – generally by making payments direct to student bank accounts.

“This may not be not sustainable and it might help if Department for Education extended the national voucher scheme on an opt-in basis for colleges.”

A student services lead at a general FE college, who did not wish to be named, was outraged with the DfE’s decision.

“This is a gross misunderstanding of the part young people in FE learning play within their community and family,” they told FE Week.

“Many are independent livers, carers for parents, grandparents and younger siblings, currently we need a whole family approach to financial support. Any delay to this approach puts families at risk.”

They added: “Our college has used a system that enables us to ensure we can bridge the Easter holiday gap, however there will be a variety of systems in place and those who cannot do that will be frustrated by this move.”

As reported by this newspaper last week, FE providers have already taken matters into their own hands in the absence of the universal voucher system.

For example, Boston College and MidKent College both opted for direct payments to students or their parents or carers.