Free school meals for infants – the controversy over Nick Clegg’s pledge rumbles on

Clegg WatfordI wrote yesterday about Sir Nick Harvey’s forecast that the next election is Labour’s to lose. But there was another issue he focused on in his Huffngton Post interview – Nick Clegg’s conference pledge that all 5-7 year-olds should have free school meals, regardless of their family’s income status.

“It was absolutely astonishing. It came from nowhere,” he exclaims. “It seemed to be part of some coalition deal where it was meant to make the Lib Dems feel better about allowing the Tories to progress their wretched married couples tax allowance. I am supposed to rejoice at this other policy that seems to me to be squandering a lot of money”.

It’s not that Harvey is opposed to free school meals. Far from it. He has been campaigning on it from both within and from without government for some time. His problem is that, in a time of squeezed public spending, he wanted the free lunch to be given to poor children from when they started school at five to when they finished at 18.

Instead, Clegg decided to give the money to the youngest children while doing nothing for those who were older but poorer. The idea is to gradually roll it out to all age groups. But Harvey suspects this may take such a long time as to never happen.

“Suddenly bunny comes out of hat,” Harvey mimes. “Someone, somewhere, has found £600m a year we didn’t know about down the back of a filing cabinet and has come up with the brilliant brainwave that the best way to spend it is to give a free school meal to all five, six and seven year olds – regardless of their income level. I am sitting there, gawping in open-mouthed astonishment,” he says. …

The Lib Dem leadership’s argument is that poor children perform better in school when the entire class has free meals. Harvey says: “It’s not that I find there to be anything intrinsically wrong with providing a free school meals to all five, six and seven year olds. I am perfectly ready to believe that it is slightly more effective at closing the attainment gap. That’s perfectly plausible. But if the cost of doing that is you ignore the poor kids from eight to 18, I struggle to believe that overall this is doing more good.

“I can see it will be years and years and years before there will be any hope of getting it to secondary pupils. I think it’s a strange sense of priorities. It’s not that I’m against giving kids a free school meal, it’s just a very odd sense of priorities.”

This critique won’t be a surprise to Nick Clegg, the man who sacked Sir Nick as defence minister last year before trying to bring him back into government as the party’s chief whip two months ago. At Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Sir Nick pointedly asked:

Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Will my right hon. Friend explain why it is a higher priority to provide a free school meal to a six-year-old from an affluent family than to a 12-year-old living in childhood poverty?

The Deputy Prime Minister: With respect, my right hon. Friend fundamentally misunderstands the progressive nature of extending free school meals to the first three years of children at primary school. The evidence from pilots in Durham, Newham and elsewhere—I strongly urge him to visit some of those pilots—suggests that it helps many thousands of children who are in poverty but do not receive free school meals. Having children share a healthy, hot lunch every day together has a dramatic effect in closing the attainment gap in education between wealthier and not so wealthy children.

The pilots of extended free school meals Nick Clegg referred to were evaluated by research institute NatCen – which concluded that the policy improved the diet of children and improved the attainment for all children, but especially those from less affluent families.

However, it also concluded there were substantial ‘deadweight’ costs – ie, the policy subsidised parents who’d previously been paying for their children’s school meals. As Conor Ryan from The Sutton Trust notes here, “Applied to a national programme, this could mean £250m of £600m in deadweight costs.” As he adds, “that may be a price worth paying if it delivers good results” – and, as importantly, better results than could otherwise be funded with that c.£250m.

Let’s remember, one of the main arguments the Coalition used in 2010 in favour of abolishing the Educational Maintenance Allowance – the £30 a week paid to 16-18 year-olds to encourage them to stay in education – was the high deadweight costs, estimated at 88% of the total cost of £560m. The following year, the Coalition replaced the EMA with a more targeted (ie, cheaper) scheme, with £180m of funding allocated to schools and colleges to offer financial assistance to young people from low-income backgrounds.

Nick Clegg will argue that, in the case of universal free school lunches for infants, the deadweight costs are justified by the shared experience of all young children sitting down to eat together – and that such money is best spent as early as possible because the attainment gap between rich and poor children gets wider throughout school. For Sir Nick Harvey, though, that argument doesn’t wash – better, he says, that free school meals be targeted specifically at young people from low-income families of all ages, not just the youngest.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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44 Comments

  • Frank Booth 24th Nov '13 - 3:51pm

    I’m confused. How would offering free school meals to all close the attainment gap? Are there plenty of parents not allowing their kids to eat school meals? These are presumably those who don’t qualify for free school meals. So are slightly better off kids who don’t qualify for free schools meals having packed lunches? Why is this going to make a difference I’m confused.

  • One point that’s been missed is simplicity. How much admin saving is there in longer having to process applications for free school meals, eligibility checks, the school providing meals to the correct pupils and claiming funding back (or is it grant-funded in advance? Dos anyone know this?)

    I’ve always thought it odd that we provide a free education but make a big deal over lunches. What if we see school lunches as an extension of the services provided by the school? We wouldn’t dream of charging well-off students just to attend school, so why complain about extending this to meals?

    If Nick Harvey or whoever wants to come up with a concrete proposal formhow else we should spend the funds then fair enough, but this is proving an easy sell on the doorsteps and could be part of our lasting legacy.

  • Frank Booth 24th Nov '13 - 4:18pm

    I suppose the state has taken on responsibility for educating children, but feeding them is still primarily the responsibility of parents. I’m just confused as to why this would lead to higher attainment. Are the kids who don’t get free meals being given bad food by their parents?

  • “If Nick Harvey or whoever wants to come up with a concrete proposal formhow else we should spend the funds then fair enough,”

    From the article above:
    “His [Harvey’s] problem is that, in a time of squeezed public spending, he wanted the free lunch to be given to poor children from when they started school at five to when they finished at 18.”

  • Helen Dudden 24th Nov '13 - 7:39pm

    All children, who are not being fed properly should be given free school meals. What happened to the free school meals that, were given out to all children who qualified. Children should be not excluded, and allowed to sit with those whose parents have contributed to cost of the meal.

    Of course, we have rickets in society, malnutrition, your Party supports the “bedroom tax” and the cuts in benefits.

    We are slipping back into Victorian times.

  • I agree with tpfkar, the current scheme is very simple and effectively targeted at children attending Infant/Primary schools. Additionally, eating well and together is an educational experience and surely something we would wish to encourage? particularly given campaigns such as “5 a day” et al. Plus we shouldn;t forget the connection between exercise and diet, hence if we are to encourage t he development of good fitness habits then we have to address diet.

    We also need to be aware of bullying – a subject also discussed recently on LDV, free meals for all removes a potential trigger for bullying.

    Finally, I also agree with Nick Harvey’s point, namely we need a strategy to take this forward into Junior and Secondary schools – I suggest 2020 as a target completion date for this. This feels reasonable although will require commitment to achieve. As for funding, well for the cost I suspect this initiative will create more jobs across the country and across key socio-economic groups significantly faster and cheaper than HS2 … Plus it will have the spin off of reducing future health care costs…

  • Which Nick is being most consistent ?

    As I remember it Labour were accused by some prominent Lib Dems of Lunch Box politics when they introduced the pilot schemes, I would say Nick Harvey is continuing this line of attack where Nick Clegg has seen evidence that the Labour scheme(s) worked and has backed a national roll out.

    Whilst consistency is a good trait in a politician, being willing to change direction when evidence is produced to support that change is more laudable.

    Of course if it really was a rabbit from a hat and MP’s were not involved it shows a bit of arrogance and smacks of an authoritarian approach to policy.

  • Nick Harvey’s wrong on this one. Many poorer families don’t take up the free school meals because they either don’t know about it or they don’t want their child to have the stigma of being on a free school meal ticket. I remember at my school the kids who handed their meal ticket in when they got their dinner were incredibly embarrassed about it. Granted I think in this day and age I hope schools are a little more thoughtful and don’t make the free school meals kids stand in a separate line like they did at my school.

    We should be pushing this policy to include all primary age children, its a good policy.

  • Simon Titley – You have hit the nail on the head.

    But to elaborate on the secondary issue, there is always a difficult choice between universal and targeted benefits. Labour on different occasions have come out passionately on both sides – and for that I don’t blame them, there are often strong arguments on both sides.

    I do suspect however that in our case, the dice are loaded. The Tories will occasionally allow us a small “win” which can be described as mildly progressive, mildly progressive or neutral. Free meals for all, like raising the tax threshold, falls into that category.

    Free meals for just the poorest, as Sir Nick Harvey advocates, would be a strongly progressive measure. The Tories will not allow that kind of measure. It would be too seriously in contrast with the general drift of Coalition policies. It would invite too much comment along the lines of “why don’t you do more things like this?” Both the Tories and the Cleggites would be embarrassed by that question.

  • I meant to say “mildly progressive, mildly regressive or neutral”.

  • Have to say I am shocked at the person above who talks about having to stand in a different queue. That is ridiculous. Can’t parents pay for school dinners by direct debit nowadays? How is it normally done?

  • Peter Watson 25th Nov '13 - 12:18am

    @pfkar “How much admin saving is there in longer having to process applications for free school meals …”
    I would estimate that the saving is zero, since the same information is required to allocate the Pupil Premium.

  • Peter Watson 25th Nov '13 - 12:36am

    @Simon Shaw “This particular policy is a Coalition Government policy, pushed for by the Lib Dems. Accordingly it differs from a Lib Dem Party policy.”
    I don’t understand the distinction you are making. If Lib Dems in Government are pushing for things that are not party policy, then what is the point in voting Lib Dem?
    I guess we might accept that something could be ‘obviously’ Lib Dem even if it is not a previously stated policy (as long as it does not contradict such policies), but in the case of universal free school meals, what makes it distinctively Lib Dem? The original pilots were driven by Labour, often with local Lib Dem opposition.

  • Richard Church 25th Nov '13 - 8:56am

    It’s reasonable to be in favour of universal benefits in some circumstances and targeted benefits in other circumstances. If a universal benefit can be seen to have a wider benefit, in this case children all sitting down for a hot meal together, then its worth doing despite the ‘dead weight’ cost. Winter fuel allowance for all pensioners though has a huge cost in supporting pensioners who can well afford to heat their homes in the winter with no wider benefit.

  • The deadweight costs of free school meals are nothing compared to those of 18 years of free education for the children of wealthy parents. Just sayin’.

  • Peter Tyzack 25th Nov '13 - 9:48am

    tpfkar is right. The lunch, drinking water, use of the toilets and a seat to sit on are all part of the service of providing education. When children visit my house, they get food and a drink, regardless of whether their parents are rich or poor.
    The administration of the free meal is onerous on the school staff, by doing away with the differentiation it enables all children to work and play together as equals without being forcibly made aware of their parents or home circumstances. It is more than just better for the school and the learning, it aids the removal of barriers to social mobility.
    Nick Harvey should stop moaning, it just shows up one reason why he is no longer a MInister.

  • I’m with Simon Titley on this. 90% of the article, and 90% of the comments are debating the rights and wrongs of free school meals for the 5-7’s. But, that debate about free school meals for 5-7’s, ought to have been had at conference/party level, BEFORE Nick Clegg opened his mouth.
    And thus the real point of this piece, surely, is :
    Does Nick Clegg consult the party before making a new policy, or policy change.?
    Answer : No

  • Peter Tyzack 25th Nov '13 - 11:11am

    John Dunn is wrong. We cannot, in government, put everything through party-conference-policy-formulation procedures, especially as the country voted for individual MPs not the Party. MPs, and our Leader in particular, have to act/ react and take opportunities as they arise. So long as they do so in line with our principles and macro policies then we should support them not carp.

  • Peter Watson 25th Nov '13 - 11:59am

    @Simon Shaw “I would estimate that the saving would be fairly large, as clearly Pupil Premium would have to be allocated on some basis other than free school meals (if they no longer existed).”
    Under Clegg’s proposals, as Nick Harvey points out, the need for free school meals for poorer older children still exists even if it does not for those under 7. Eligibility for free school meals is also used as an efficient way to determine entitlement to other financial assistance, e.g. school transport.
    If free school meals becomes a universal benefit, how can you be confident that a different way of means testing for pupil premium and other assistance would lead to a fairly large saving? Perhaps children from poorer families would be even more reluctant to come forward as they would receive no direct financial benefit, so the saving could come from a reduction in the distribution of the Pupil Premium to those who need it.

  • John Heyworth 25th Nov '13 - 12:06pm

    Simon Shaw is right: “…as clearly Pupil Premium would have to be allocated on some basis other than free school meals (if they no longer existed).” Nobody seems to know how this policy decision of three years free meals will alter the calculations of the Pupil Premium. Perhaps someone in the Party’s Education Team can enlighten us as we are cing asked regularly how it will now be calculated – Estimated or Pro Rata or simply guessed?

  • Peter Watson 25th Nov '13 - 12:08pm

    @Peter Tyzack “We cannot, in government, put everything through party-conference-policy-formulation procedures, especially as the country voted for individual MPs not the Party.”
    Clegg announced this ‘policy’ at the end of a Lib Dem conference, so why could it not have been discussed and debated at that conference?

    “So long as they do so in line with our principles and macro policies then we should support them not carp.”
    Lib Dems had previously opposed this ‘policy’ when other parties supported it. Is it an obvious and distinctive Lib Dem measure?

    And let’s not forget that Clegg did not announce this in isolation: it was presented as quid pro quo for penalising the unmarried through the tax system, something that Lib Dems oppose. Perhaps it would have been better economically and more consistent with Lib Dem values – for neither to be implemented.

  • @Simon Shaw
    “as clearly Pupil Premium would have to be allocated on some basis other than free school meals (if they no longer existed).”

    I think you are hitting on something that many will find very uncomfortable, namely civil liberties and the degree to which we are prepared to have joined up government, as basically “the state” already knows who is entitled to free school meals etc. only they don’t because relevant databases between departments are not (officially) linked.

    With CTC and the taxation of Child Benefit, it would seem that HMRC already have on record, the key details of children from ‘poorer’ households. It is a relatively simple task to cross match this data with LEA schools admission data to identify which schools should be receiving the Pupil Premium. However, in general the government has seen it to be in it’s interest to make people activity claim, because the level of claims made and hence pay out will always be lower…

  • The above views vary because there is no transparent “in government” drafting committee to quickly decide what Lib Dems would approve, or not, come a needed new input while in government. The result is a mish mash of Cleggisms v party members’ comments and principles. The learning curve goes on – and meanwhile the leader becomes more isolated after taking non-party policies. Will he ever learn to be proactive with systems?

  • I have argued on previous threads that In my opinion this is 600 million pounds that is not very well targeted money.

    (1) if it is the case that children perform better if they have had a proper nutritious meal, then why not make it a breakfast club. That way the children would be benefiting from the very first 2 lessons at the start of school, rather than the last 2 lessons after Lunch.
    (2) Children from poorer backgrounds do not really benefit from this policy as free school meals are already in place for those who qualify.
    (3) If the argument is that there are many children who are not entitled to free school meals but whose family are regarded as still on low income/poverty and this policy would benefit them. What happens to those families when the child Tuns 9?
    These families who may have 2 children between the ages of 5 and 8 would have budgeted and juggled the household income for the last 3 years on the basis of not having to meet the costs of feeding their children for 5 meals a week.
    All of a sudden their children turn 9 and they have to stretch their budgets to meet the costs of pack lunches or school meals.

    This is a ill thought out policy in my opinion and there are far better ways to spend 1/2 billion pounds that better targets children’s education, especially those from poorer backgrounds

  • Peter Watson 25th Nov '13 - 11:30pm

    @Simon Shaw “I thought that it was that some Lib Dems in some parts of the country had opposed it.”
    Insofar as Lib Dems only opposed it everywhere it was trialled and in the Scottish Parliament when it was proposed by SNP and Labour, then you might be correct. Perhaps Lib Dems supported it in parts of the country where it was not being considered. 😉

  • Simon Titley highlights the real point.
    Those that feel the need to apologise for Clegg seem to have some difficulty understanding a very simple fact.
    Clegg did this without thinking, without consulting anyone not even the largely supine parliamentary party.
    Just like when he wanted to go to war with Syria , or his agreement to smashing The Guardian’s computers, or his liking for secret courts. All of these in the last few months.

    The apologists for Clegg have had a lot of practice over the last 5 years even before the coalition.
    There has been a lot to apologise for.
    Let’s face it – he is not up to the job.

    His apologist should just read again what Simon said –

    Simon Titley 24th Nov ’13 – 10:08pm
    The point is that this policy was announced out of the blue with no prior consultation or forethought.

    … .. writing policy on the back of an envelope without prior consultation.

  • Peter Watson 27th Nov '13 - 1:29am

    @Simon Shaw “From the way you first wrote I thought you were saying that it was Lib Dem policy to oppose it.”
    I imagine that Lib Dems had no official policy at all on this issue, but I’ve not seen evidence that the party did anything other than oppose it at every opportunity, whether that was Lib Dem councillors, MSPs, or Simon Hughes. Then Clegg told us, “It’s my idea. It’s a Liberal Democrat idea.” which it patently was not. Even Sir Nick Harvey, an MP for more than 20 years, was surprised: “It was absolutely astonishing. It came from nowhere”.
    Instead, it seems that Clegg is trying to claim ownership of an idea that Labour (and SNP) had initiated and Gove for the tories had accepted months earlier while Lib Dems had a history of opposing it. And then Clegg presented this volte-face as the result of successful negotiation, a win for the virtuous Lib Dems, the price of which was allowing those horrid tories to penalise unmarried people in the tax system. How many faces does the man have?

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Nov '13 - 11:05am

    Simon Titley

    “Whether you agree with the principle of free school meals or not (which comes down to a question of universal vs. targeted benefits), this policy should have been properly thought through, and the party should have been consulted and brought on board.”

    It’s yet another example of Clegg’s incompetence. There are virtues to this policy, though it does need a bit more discussion, but the way it was just thrown at us out of the blue has just managed to wind up and annoy even those who would be very favourable to it. So it comes across as arrogant, as a bone thrown to the dogs to distract them. Instead of welcoming it, most of us, who aren’t the fools Clegg takes us to be, instantly thought “What did he give away in order to achieve this?”. A leader needs to be with those he or she leads, and Clegg is not. A true leader needs to listen to what those he or she leads are saying, and Clegg never gives any sign of listening, let alone properly consulting with the party as a whole. He continually appoints to advisory and leading positions only those whose positions represent the fringe of our party which sees “liberalism” as meaning just Conservative economic policy with an added dose of civil liberties. He shows no sign of taking into account the views of anyone who is more to the left in the party, and has allowed a leading adviser to get away with suggesting they should leave it and join the Labour Party, they and all those whose votes they’ve “borrowed” from that party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Nov ’13 – 11:05am
    Clegg never gives any sign of listening, let alone properly consulting with the party as a whole. He continually appoints to advisory and leading positions only those whose positions represent the fringe of our party which sees “liberalism” as meaning just Conservative economic policy with an added dose of civil liberties.

    Yes absolutely right.
    The subject of Clegg”s appointments is worthy of closer examination.
    I think I am right in saying that in the Cabinet Office Clegg has about 20 appointees working directly for him.
    I am guessing that these appointees will be on at least twice the average annual salary.
    Who are they, what is their background? How does one get one of these jobs? What exactly do they do? Is there an open and equal ops method of recruitment for these appointments?

    I think we should be told.

  • Helen Dudden 28th Nov '13 - 10:35am

    How about the return to milk given at break time. Milk is an inexpensive product that children should drink as part of a healthy diet, if they have no health issues to prevent it.

    I had the option of milk, good school dinners, not chips everyday, but healthy food.

    You still have not added the older children, also at risk.

  • Shirley Campbell 29th Nov '13 - 12:28am

    Helen, you have hit the nail on the head. Let’s bring back free school milk at the mid morning break time.

    Furthermore, if hot meals are to be provided midday, then let’s ensure that the meals are actually nutritious. Has anyone actually seen a typical school’s idea of a “nutritious and well-balanced meal”?

    Actually, my generation were bred on institutionally cooked food which was generally unappetising. I remember mashed potato with black bits, watery carrots and watery cabbage. The issue must surely be combining the well-balanced with the nutritional. Didn’t Jamie Oliver seek to bridge the gap?

    Yes, Helen, and as a priority, let’s bring back free school milk, and bring back those with the will to ensure that the young ones actually drink it.

  • As an opponent of multiple means-tested benefits (many of which are complicated to administer and in aggregate make parents better off on benefits than in work), I am very happy that free school meals for young children are to be taken off what is already far too long a list. There is a particular risk with young children that they will slip through the net. However, for the sake of those who object to the children of high earners receiving free school meals (even though they pay for them through their taxes), would it be possible for free school meals to be taken into account as part of the universal credit-tax credit system?

    However, I do share others’ concerns about the development of policy announcements on the hoof. We need an urgent issues process obviously for emergencies, but it seems to be that free school meals could have been dealt with through normal processes. More generally, we should be objecting to politicians pulling policies out of hats – obvious examples include the budget and the Queen’s Speech. The Government (and we) should be consulting openly on what these contain in advance. In particular, the draft Queen’s Speech should be properly debated at conference before it is finalised

  • Regardless of the way in which this policy was announced, most of those commenting seem to be missing the point.
    Various league tables have highlighted how poorly educated students are in this country compared to those in other EU counties or even their grandparents. OECD league tables to be published tomorrow will no doubt give more cause for concern, but the two pilots schemes, in Durham and Newham, mentioned by Nick Clegg , not only saw the take up of free free meals soar – they also saw a marked improvement in academic achievements.
    Those of us who are, or have been teachers, might suggest that before such a policy is rolled out that more evidence is sought on the benefits of the provision of a free breakfast for every child. This might prove to be of greater benefit, especially to children of working parents. The needs of working parents who still find it difficult to make ends meet are too often ignored, the assumpumtion being that only those on benefits are poor. Free school meals are currently available to children of some poor parents, but they are not available to those whose parents are in work.

  • Helen Dudden 6th Dec '13 - 5:49pm

    Exactly the point, there were breakfast clubs, a good healthy breakfast, is the start of the day,.

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