Families who book places on free school holiday activity schemes and fail to show up have been branded “disgraceful” by a community leader who fears they are depriving others of a meal and chance to boost their mental health.
More than a third of places on the holiday activities and food programme in Staffordshire have been left empty, with many families booking up slots but not attending a senior Staffordshire county councillor has revealed, (writes local democracy reporter Kerry Ashdown).
The scheme, which offers free meals and sessions such as football, go karting, paintballing, arts and crafts, has been running since summer 2021 to help families on low incomes make the most of the school holidays.
It is open to families of children eligible for free school meals and more than 117,000 free places have been offered, with those attending including youngsters who have fled the war in Ukraine and young carers.
But some families who could benefit are missing out because they are not deemed eligible, Stone county councillor Jill Hood has said. And attendance was not as high as the county council had hoped for, Cabinet member for children and young people County Coun Mark Sutton told fellow councillors at a meeting.
He said: “We have this funding guaranteed for the next three years and we are just coming towards the end of the first year.
“During the summer we offered 46,000 places with 53 different clubs across the county and 37 different providers who are often using outlets local to them to provide food.
“We had an attendance rate of 63%. It’s not as high as we would like it, but it’s round about what is happening nationally.”
He went on: “Quite a lot of families book their children on and then just don’t turn up for whatever reason. We will be doing some work to make sure that the provision is in the places that we need it, and we will be able to change things slightly if we need to for summer.
“Not only do children taking part get a healthy meal – much of it is also activities that help with child development and mental wellbeing. It gives them the opportunity to meet friends and people they don’t know to do activities together.”
During the summer 625 children attended who had recorded special educational and disability needs. Some 215 attendees were either from Ukraine, or in the care of the local authority, a young carer themselves or living in a hostel.
County Coun Sutton said: “Some of the feedback from Ukrainian parents was excellent and providers were positive. Even some of those young people with limited English skills really mixed in and benefited from it.
“During the winter it is a little bit more difficult to deliver – lots of times parents have got other things and it’s a busy time with Christmas. But there are 27 providers around the county delivering 69 clubs during the winter period, the benefits are fantastic and hopefully we will be able to deliver it for the next couple of years at the very least.”
County Coun Hood hit out against those who booked places at the clubs but failed to turn up on the day. She also repeated her concerns for families who may not be classed as eligible for the free food and activities, but still struggled to make ends meet or find childcare during school holidays.
She said: “These disgraceful people, who are not turning up to these schemes, make me so angry. It deprives children who could have had that place but aren’t quite eligible.
“Please can we find some way of having an absenteeism register so that we could immediately contact someone and say there’s a place if you can get here? Please can we look at this scheme to see if we can widen it?
“It is an amazing scheme that we offer and the benefit for children and families is incredible. But can I mention those families who are just not quite eligible, are working in full or part time employment, but their wage is not enough to cover childcare.
“We have children now who are being looked after by people who are not registered, we have an extra burden on grandparents. It worries me that they’re not having any activities during the holidays, hence childhood obesity and mental health.
“The costs to families now are enormous with the extra fuel bills. Some of them can’t afford the fuel for their car, let alone to heat their homes.”
Council leader County Coun Alan White responded: “I nearly fell off my chair when the portfolio holder (County Coun Sutton) said the absenteeism was 37%, so I’ve asked him to look into the absentee register you have suggested. I think that’s a really sensible idea.
“If we’re laying these things on for people and they’re not bothering to turn up, it is a bit of a travesty that people on the cusp of eligibility may not be able to attend. As far as eligibility is concerned, it is set by Government and not by us.
“I meet Staffordshire MPs once a month and and where there is some issue of inflexibility laid down by central government we do appeal to them on a regular basis to say let us decide locally. We are local representatives and we know best what’s right for our local people.”