Free school meals are a fine thing, but getting pupils back into the classroom needs to take priority

Stormont is never slow to jump on a bandwagon that sounds good, that will cost money, and for which someone else will pay.

By Editorial
Wednesday, 17th June 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 17th June 2020, 8:06 pm
News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

Its tendency in this regard is hardly helped by the fact of a Conservative government in office that also chases heart-warming headlines, whatever the cost.

Yesterday it revealed that London is funding payments to families in England who are in receipt of free school meals for the summer. Scotland and Wales said they would do the same and Northern Ireland seems set to follow suit.

Free school meals are of themselves a very good idea. They help to support the poorest children and they have been associated with healthier eating and lower levels of obesity.

The arguments for and against summer payments are more complex, because free school meals typically only happen in term time. Covid-19 is a novel situation, which has wreaked havoc with term scheduling, yet families would not get summer support if schools were open. There must at least therefore be arguments that at this time of financial crisis there might be more pressing demands on public funds.

And even if Stormont does follow suit with the rest of the UK, why not then combine it with a more urgent return of schools? Our MLAs have been almost in unison in their tentative approach with, as ever, Jim Allister the sceptical voice.

The evidence keeps growing that school closures hurt poor children the most and also that kids are least at risk from Covid. Teachers are no more at risk than shop workers.

It is too late now to bring forward the far too late NI school return date of mid August. What can be done is that the ridiculously cautious, and unworkable, social distancing proposals for schools are reduced. The current plans would entail schools gradually returning to normal over many months, thus inflicting great harm on the education of a generation.

The World Health Organisation recommends social distancing of only one metre. This is far more feasible in classrooms than the UK’s 2m, and should be applied by Northern Ireland schools.

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