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Millions of poorer children on free school meals have been sent food vouchers and parcels while at home during lockdown.

Footballer Marcus Rashford and others have been campaigning for the voucher scheme in England to continue through the summer holidays. But the government has said it will not extend it.

So, who is eligible for free school meals and how do they work?

Which children get free school meals?

Free school meals have been at least partially funded by the government for more than a century, because of concerns about malnourishment and children being too hungry to concentrate during lessons.

Children of all ages living in households on income-related benefits may be eligible, from government-maintained nurseries through to sixth forms.

Eligibility varies slightly between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because the nations set their own rules.

New claims made from April 2018 in England must come from households earning a maximum income of £7,400 a year after tax, not including any benefits. It’s the same in Scotland and Wales, but in Northern Ireland the household income threshold is £14,000

In England and Scotland, all infant state school pupils (those in Reception and in Years 1 and 2) can get free school meals during term time.

If a child qualifies for school meals they remain eligible until they finish the phase of school they’re in as of 31 March 2022, whether primary or secondary.

How many children get free school meals?

In England, about 1.3 million children claimed for free school meals in 2019, or about 15% of state-educated pupils.

In Manchester, where Marcus Rashford grew up, the figure is 28.1%

The take-up was greatest in parts of London, the north of England and the Midlands where between a quarter and a third of all pupils were receiving free school meals.

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Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford has written to MPs asking for school meals vouchers to continue over the summer

How has the scheme changed during coronavirus?

The majority of children have not been at school during the coronavirus pandemic. This has prompted concerns that those eligible for free school meals could “fall through the cracks” and go hungry.

In recent years, free school meals have been linked to lowering obesity levels, and boosting academic achievement for poorer pupils.

During term time, the government in England expects schools to support pupils eligible for free school meals through an alternative scheme, such as:

  • Food parcels for collection or delivery
  • The government’s centrally-funded national voucher scheme
  • Alternative vouchers for a local shop or supermarket

Many families have been issued with either an electronic voucher or gift card worth £15 each week per pupil, to spend at supermarkets including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S.

But the system has suffered problems including schools struggling to log on, parents being unable to download vouchers and some saying the vouchers failed when they tried to use them.

The programme, which has cost more than £129m since lockdown began, ran throughout the Easter and May half-term holidays, but will not continue in the summer holidays.

What did Marcus Rashford say?

Calling for the government in England to change its decision, Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford said his family had once relied on free school meals. “The system isn’t built for families like mine to succeed,” he said.

Campaigners have also threatened legal action against the government for not extending the food voucher scheme.

The Department for Education said food parcels will still be available and schools that can’t implement these will be allowed to offer vouchers. It also pointed to a new £63m local authority welfare assistance scheme to support the most vulnerable families.

What is happening in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

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