Gove and Laws write for Times: We are committed to free school meals policy because evidence shows it helps kids achieve more

20120907-FNS-LSC-0544On his various media appearances this morning, Nick Clegg has been asked whether he ordered Michael Gove and David Laws to write an article setting out the background to the free school meals policy. He  said on Call Clegg that he had suggested it to them that they clarify the situation to reassure parents that the policy will be delivered on time.

This comes after a febrile few days when Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former Special Adviser, has been telling everyone who will listen that this was a policy drawn up pretty much at 5 minutes’ notice on the back of a fag packet. The Gove/Laws piece gives the lie to that, setting out the background to the story which actually began when Ed Balls was Education Secretary and set up two pilot programmes during the last Labour government.

I was expecting a stilted article, with a bit of an atmosphere around it, a bit like getting two toddlers to make up and say sorry to each other. Actually, it’s a pretty coherent, well-written piece with a bit of humour in it. I don’t expect Liberal Democrats and Tory ministers to get on personally, but I do expect them to act professionally. To be fair, it seems to be the Tory Special Advisers who are responsible for most of the ructions and it’s time for the ministers to lay down the law. If you wouldn’t get away with it in the playground, you shouldn’t get away with it in the Department of Education.

So, whoever crafted this piece and got them to sign off on it did a good job. At its heart is the evidence that a policy of universal school meals has important social, health and educational benefits for children:

With fewer pupils eating packed lunches, the average midday meal improved significantly: consumption of sandwiches fell by 27 per cent, soft drinks by 16 per cent and crisps by 18 per cent, while vegetable consumption was up by 26 per cent.

However, it was the improvements in academic achievement that were most impressive. Children in the pilot areas quickly moved ahead of their peers elsewhere — making on average, at Key Stage 2, about two months’ more progress in English and maths than similar pupils in comparison areas. In fact, free meals did more to improve literacy levels than the nationwide introduction of a compulsory “literacy hour” in 1998.

Why? Partly because universal free school meals (UFSM) solves the problem of feeding pupils from low-income working families who don’t quite qualify for free school meals but whose parents can’t afford to pay for them (or to put together a nutritious packed lunch). Hungry children struggle to concentrate and may disrupt the whole class.

But it’s also because of subtle social benefits: removing the social stigma felt by the poorest pupils and improving the atmosphere of the school. Schools in the pilot areas reported improvements in behaviour and morale. Head teachers said that the policy had unified their schools with all children eating together.

And why does it have to be universal?

These less tangible virtues may explain why, counterintuitively, the policy only works when it is universal. It is only by giving free school meals to all children, including the richest, that the poorest benefit.

When a pilot scheme in Wolverhampton tried to extend free school meal provision but only by relaxing the financial criteria for eligibility, there was no comparable academic improvement.

What does come through, though, is that in the face of this evidence, it was Nick Clegg who was the driving force behind turning it into a reality and it seems to have been done in a reasonable manner with any problems being dealt with:

Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems supported the School Food Plan and Nick Clegg secured the money to deliver the universal infant free school meal policy. We have secured more than £1 billion over two years for the meals and £150 million this year to improve kitchen and dining facilities.

There will, of course, be challenges. Some schools will find it easier than others to expand catering services, but at present the overwhelming majority seem to be on track and we are confident the policy will be delivered on time and on budget.

We have also part-funded a new task force to advise on practical solutions, such as an easily-assembled “pod” kitchen for those that don’t have one.

You can read the whole article here (£).

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 15th May '14 - 11:48am

    That would be the very one, Helen. Just as well he’s gone. Arguably he’s doing less damage outside the Westminster Bubble than inside it.

  • This is a resounding win for the Lib Dems. Good to see a lack of the usual naysayers (“this Lib Dem policy is bound to fail because….”) and Clegg-haters on this thread. Perhaps they were put off by the clear and convincing evidence presented in the article and presented above. Thanks Caron.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th May '14 - 1:16pm

    There is no evidence that the policy is on the “efficient frontier”, which is a posh finance way of saying “the most reward for a given level of risk”. I just don’t think it is the best use of resources. We need less party line discipline so more people feel able to speak out either in favour or against policy.

  • Chris Manners 15th May '14 - 7:18pm

    This will come a very poor second to free schools if Gove needs more money.

  • “Just who is being profligate with taxpayers’ money and helping out their friends’ vanity projects?”

    Yes now we all know that when the Coalition tell us there is no money, they really mean there is no money for the poor and disabled.

  • “There is no evidence that the policy is on the “efficient frontier”, which is a posh finance way of saying “the most reward for a given level of risk”. “

    Of course, the Department for Education’s Impact Report considered precisely this question, and concluded that:
    “Comparing these figures with those for selected other interventions designed to affect similar outcomes suggests that the universal entitlement pilot delivered better value for money (in terms of higher attainment of pupils on average) than some educational interventions, but worse value for money than others. The evidence suggests that the universal entitlement pilot provides better value for money than the extended entitlement pilot, but raises questions over its value for money compared with some other initiatives.”

    To give a concrete example, the report estimated that the “Literacy Hour’ provided 90% of the benefit of universal free school meals at only 11% of the cost. And Jamie Oliver’s campaign to improve the quality, rather than the quantity, of school meals, provided more than half the benefit at less than a tenth of the cost.

    But perhaps behind the paywall there’s a magisterial demolition of these findings.

  • Why put it in the Times anyway, if they want people to read it? Or do such mundane considerations just not occur to them?

  • Peter Watson 16th May '14 - 9:59am

    @RC “This is a resounding win for the Lib Dems. Good to see a lack of the usual naysayers (“this Lib Dem policy is bound to fail because….”) ”
    Don’t you mean ‘this Labour policy that Lib Dems opposed at every step at a local level and a national level in Scotland, with even Simon Hughes chiming in against it …’?

  • Chris Manners 16th May '14 - 5:29pm

    Good post from Chris.

    Nice bit of “new politics” from Clegg, neglecting to mention that while it was positive, other things were more positive.

    This has been all politics from the start. Something to announce alongside the Tory marriage tax break. I thought there was no money left. Why don’t the pair of you negotiate away each’s pet policies?

  • Chris Manners 16th May '14 - 5:41pm

    “Chris 16th May ’14 – 9:07am
    Why put it in the Times anyway, if they want people to read it? Or do such mundane considerations just not occur to them?”

    The point is that people hear it’s happened, not that read it.

  • “It is only by giving free school meals to all children, including the richest, that the poorest benefit.”

    This isn’t totally correct.. Lets never forget that about 6.5 per cent of the entire school-age population attend private schools and thankfully they won’t benefit from this policy. Of course not every wealthy parent sends their children to private schools, but put it this way, when it comes to the very rich there are few that don’t.

    Free school meals for infant children ‘is a policy with huge benefits for children’s health and education development – and will help considerably many struggling families on relatively low and modest incomes. You don’t ultimately have to earning much to just be over the income threshold that entitles some families at present to free schools meals.

    Personally, I think the real big issue is how the school premium will operate in future when free schools are at present the primary basis of how the funding is allocated.

  • “But perhaps behind the paywall there’s a magisterial demolition of these findings.”

    Apparently not, judging from the deafening silence from those who were cheerleading for this as evidence-based policy a couple of days ago.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th May '14 - 11:04am

    When this policy was announced, there was a sort of “Oh …” reaction from Liberal Democrat members. There was no great cheering for it. It wasn’t anything we had particularly pushed for, or that had had a great deal of discussion in the party. Most of us, while not wanting actually to condemn this policy, because it’s not in itself a bad idea, could see that it hadn’t been though through, may well turn messy when the details of implementation are reached, and we feared what else had been given away that we might have put higher priority on in order to secure this one.

    So it’s another sign of Clegg’s poor leadership – lack of consultation with party members who would have been able to give expert and knowledgeable advice on this from the background of being LEA members or school governors, release of half-baked policy without proper thinking through of the consequences, the party dragooned into cheering it on by the top-down leader-oriented way in which it was presented, an over-plugging of some titbit that has fallen from the Tory table as if it was some super-wonderful thing we had always wanted, rather than some random bit of compromise that could have been managed much better if Clegg had been more inclusive in the way he leads the party.

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