Munira Wilson challenges Government on free school meals

It was Nick Clegg who introduced free school meals for all 5 to 7 year olds, while the Conservative partners in the coalition, notably George Osborne, resisted the proposal.

You might be surprised to learn that school meals date back over a century, although access and the quality of provision was variable until the 1944 Education Act. That required all Local Education Authorities to provide school meals for all, free to those who met certain poverty criteria, plus free school milk for all. It also laid down nutritional requirements for the meals.

Since then the requirements have been gradually eroded, in spite of numerous research findings which show the health and economic benefits, as well as educational ones, of providing universal access to nutritious meals to all children.

Maggie Thatcher was famously tagged “Milk snatcher” when, as Education Secretary, she removed free school milk in 1971. Then the Education Act 1980 removed the requirement to provide meals to all children unless they qualified for free meals. School canteens were given over to private contractors or simply turned into teaching spaces, packed lunches became the norm and nutritional guidelines withered.

It took a celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, to lead the campaign for good food in schools and for a while things started to look better for the health of the nation’s children. But by 2019 60% of schools were still not meeting food standards.

And it took a celebrity footballer, Marcus Rashford, to shame the Government into extending free school meals into the holiday periods during Covid.

But it is a constant struggle between those who care about the impact of poverty on education versus those who worry about the “nanny state”.

Munira Wilson, our Education spokesperson, has consistently challenged the Government on its current provision of free school meals, achieving front page coverage.  Her latest campaign is seemingly quite a modest one – to ensure that all children who are eligible for free school meals under the current rules actually get them. It seems, astonishingly, that nearly a quarter of a million children go without because they haven’t been registered. She claims this should be an automatic process rather than one relying on opt-ins.

On top of that many children in poverty, however that is assessed, are simply not eligible.  One reason is because the income thresholds for free school meals have been frozen for the last four years; another relates to the rapidly rising levels of poverty resulting from the cost-of-living crisis.

The apparent rise in overall living standards over the last century masks the deepening inequalities in British society, which produce an ever larger group of people in poverty. The huge rise in food bank use is testament to that. Widening access to free school meals, if not for all, would have benefits far beyond its costs, but for me, this is simply a humanitarian issue. How can we call ourselves a modern liberal democracy if children are going hungry?

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • nigel hunter 30th Dec '22 - 11:29am

    What does a Nanny do.? He/she looks after a child who,s parents have to work. The child is looked after for a small income (tax) and protects,teaches the child etc.The nanny IS THE STATE where the child is protected and nurtured into the world which helps the parents cope with the problems around them.The NANNY STATE is the support network to help the parents enable the growth of the child to become an adult and to thrive A nanny state helps that state to develop flourish and grow. NANNY STATE IT IS NOT A DEROGATORY TERM it is a term of achievement and success.

  • Good to see Munira taking up free school meals as an education issue. All too often experts and interested people, including Liberal Democrats, discuss the achievement gap in our schools and forget that factors outside the school have a big part to play. That means not only providing what welfare we can in our schools, but improving other public services which impact on children and families; children’s social care, the virtual school system for children in local authority care, support for SEND, youth services (which were devastated from 2010), good social housing and so on and so on all play a part. Reports by Education Policy Institute, National Institute of Economic and Social Research and the Social Mobility Commission in 2019 showed how the achievement gap was in danger of widening again in spite of huge efforts by schools. Teachers cannot do it all.

  • Mel Borthwaite 30th Dec '22 - 6:16pm

    A good issue to raise, both morally and politically. It is clearly unfair that all state school pupils in the first 5 years of primary school in Scotland get free school meals when pupils of similar age, south of the border, don’t. English pupils deserve equal provision.

  • Steve Trevethan 30th Dec '22 - 6:22pm

    How can a state which has about 30% of its children going permanently hungry be accurately labelled as a real democracy?

    Might democracy have at least four facets?
    * Input
    * Process
    * Outcomes
    * Efficiency ans effectiveness review and development systems

    What is the quality of our input system?
    Process seems to involve “Think Tanks” whose funders are hidden.
    Outcomes, such as so many hungry, cold and impoverished children and families, are, at best, poor and shoddy.
    Do we actually have any review and development system?

  • Peter Watson 30th Dec '22 - 8:29pm

    “It was Nick Clegg who introduced free school meals for all 5 to 7 year olds, while the Conservative partners in the coalition, notably George Osborne, resisted the proposal.”
    Nick Clegg seemed to take his own party by surprise when he bounced the Lib Dems into supporting this, since they’d previously opposed the idea which was originally trialled by Ed Balls as Labour’s Education Secretary!

  • Thatcher got all the “credit” for it because of the rhyming name and I suspect also because it was easier to criticise a woman for failing to be seen to care enough about children, especially in the 1970s.

    From what I’ve read the abolition happened in three stages (different age groups) though – the other two stages of its abolition under Labour.

  • Munira is doing a brilliant job on this issue.

    Jen also makes a good point that the whole debate about free school milk.

    Free school milk for secondary school children was abolished by Labour in 1968 and in addition access to school meals became more difficult with parents having to pay more for their children’s lunches.

    Margaret Thatcher then ended free school milk for most junior school children (children over 7) – but not all primary school children as is often claimed.

  • Massimo Ricciuti 31st Dec '22 - 12:07pm

    “How can we call ourselves a modern liberal democracy if children are going hungry?”. Thank you, Mary, for this interesting article!!!

  • Suzanne Fletcher 31st Dec '22 - 2:23pm

    Excellent article (wouldn’t have read it at this time of year if not so!).
    Strongly agree with what it says. Just to add 2 things.
    Until last year children of parents who were on what is called “Section 4” payments as they are asylum seekers deemed at that stage to be “failed” were not allowed the free school meals. Not were children of parents with “no recourse to public funds”.
    I campaigned, with evidence, on this with my Tees Valley of Sanctuary hat on (sadly I did not get much traction with the party) with some London based organisations and a legal firm. I even got my anti immigrant Tory MP to take it up with the Minister.
    It was only after that campaign, with others, that free school meals for all were eventually allowed, if criteria (mainly income based) was met. I then worked hard to get the message out to local schools, and am having another go following the publicity last week. Something we can all do, locally, as best we can, to get all schools and those who work with families on board.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 31st Dec '22 - 2:25pm

    Secondly I have read that Jamie Oliver says that a sugar tax would pay for free school meals for all.
    Is that true? and if so are our party/Munira able to take that up and press hard on it. Surely a win win win campaign?

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