Nick Harvey writes: Making free school meals work

school mealsYesterday in Parliament I joined with the Children’s Society to chair a roundtable to discuss the Government’s new free school meals policy.

Announced at last year’s Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference, from the start of the next school year (2014/15) all children at infant school in England will receive a free school lunch. The policy, which is projected to cost around £1bn over the next two years, will apply to all children aged 4-7 regardless of their family’s income.

Yesterday’s event brought together MPs with experts in the fields of education and nutrition in order to try and solve some of the problems currently facing the universal infant free school meals plan.

Among those who attended was Kathryn James, the director of education at the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). Her presentation made clear that schools and head teachers are supportive of the move. However, they feel there are obstacles in their way that are making the policy difficult to implement.

Whilst it is true that some of England’s 16,000+ primary schools will already be fully equipped to provide all their infant children with a lunchtime meal, there are many more that are not. I know of schools in my constituency that currently do not even have a kitchen.

Kathryn’s presentation revealed that this was by no means unique to North Devon. The Guardian recently spoke to a head teacher at a primary school in Bristol who revealed that she currently “cannot see a solution” to the kitchen and dining room capacity problems presented by universal free school meals.

The Government has previously announced that £150m of capital funding will be available to help schools adapt their facilities, but because this funding will be allocated by number of pupils rather than the current state of each school’s facilities, there is a real danger that not enough of this money will go where it is needed the most.

The Department for Education yesterday took a welcome step in announcing small schools, which often have the most limited kitchen and dining facilities, will be guaranteed at least £3,000 to help cope with the transition to feeding many more children. However, the fact remains that funding the necessary alterations will be a big challenge for some schools.

It was also clear that concerns about the Pupil Premium were at the top of most head teacher’s lists of concerns. Under the current system, schools receive their Pupil Premium allocation based on the number of children on their roll claiming free school meals. This means that parents who previously would have been entitled to free meals will still have to be persuaded to fill out the necessary forms if their child’s school is to continue receiving the right amount of Pupil Premium funding.

The Pupil Premium is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of the Liberal Democrats in coalition and since its introduction schools depend on it for a large part of their overall funding. This transitional period is making many head teachers nervous about their future budgets so more will need to be done to help schools achieve a high registration rate among their pupil’s parents or carers.

After discussing some of the hurdles that need to be overcome in the short term, we turned to the question of what the next step would be in extending access to free school meals. It is important to remember that even after the millions spent on this policy, research by the Children’s Society shows that there will be hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty who will still not be entitled to a free lunch.

If we continue to tackle this problem by incrementally making free school lunches open to all children year group by year group, I fear that, under the current fiscal conditions, this will take far too long. Certainly too long for today’s 12, 14 and 16 year olds who will have likely left school by the time the money is found for them.

It was suggested by many, me included, that the eventual introduction of Universal Credit provides the perfect opportunity to widen access to school food so that no child in poverty misses out.  This would work by entitling every child from a family receiving Universal Credit automatically to a free school lunch. This approach may well be the best and fairest way to build on the current policy over the next parliament and beyond.

 

 

* Sir Nick Harvey was the Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon from 1992 until 2015 and Minister of State for the Armed Forces from 2010 to 2012

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12 Comments

  • Helen Dudden 7th Mar '14 - 8:19pm

    The situation on the producing decent school meals , was made a problems many years ago. Kitchens are needed to cook, not chips, but healthy meals.

    It happened many years ago. Being born in 1948, gave me free milk during the break, gave me school doctors and dental checks. Also, my sight was checked. Not to forget the nurse, who came to check for our hair, for obvious reasons.

    I was taught to cook, later, anything up to a Christmas cake.

    All children need healthy food, not only those who are in the infant section.

  • @Helen
    Adding to your list of things that were done/available through school we shouldn’t forget vaccinations. It just goes to show the real downside to having paid too much attention to woolly headed do gooders, who have banged on about human rights.

  • Robert Wootton 7th Mar '14 - 11:25pm

    There have been other comments about providing free school meals to the children of well to do parents. However, wasn’t this issue resolved in 1968/9? When my fourth child was born then, the annual amount of child benefit received was deducted from my personal tax allowance. The net gain in income was 2/6d (12.5p) per week. At the time I was could gross £23 per 50 hour week working in a foundry in the midlands. Take home pay was a massive £20.

    About the stigmatisation of children who are the recipients of free school meals. Modern colleges use a thumb print payment system. Since all children use this system in our local college, the stigmatisation based on this does not occur.

  • “This means that parents who previously would have been entitled to free meals will still have to be persuaded to fill out the necessary forms if their child’s school is to continue receiving the right amount of Pupil Premium funding”

    Why would parents do this though ? Do most parents have an interest, far less a clue about school funding ? I think not ( if they did, they would see the free school so beloved by Gove & Laws, as taking funding away from other LA schools ) never mind being asked to complete forms on the pretence of getting free school meals when every child will be getting them.

    Funny how funding can be found for this & other coalition goodies yet we are supposedly skint & facing a £20 billion black hole in the next year……

  • Peter Watson 8th Mar '14 - 8:41am

    @MartinB “This means that parents who previously would have been entitled to free meals will still have to be persuaded to fill out the necessary forms if their child’s school is to continue receiving the right amount of Pupil Premium funding …Funny how funding can be found for this”
    Perhaps there is a link. Might the funding for Free school meals include an allowance for reduced claims for the Pupil Premium?

  • peter tyzack 8th Mar '14 - 8:46am

    there is something uncomfortable associated with the word wherever/whenever it is used. ‘Free’ has so many adverse connotations, the idea of ‘something-for-nothing’ is so far from reality that we should drop the word from our language, particularly in this context. Take the ‘clean sheet of paper’ approach, we are setting up an education system, the children are to be on the premises for six hours a day, they need somewhere to sit, somewhere to hang their coat, toilets, drinks and food… it is all part of providing the service.. so why do we try to account for one part of that separately and, worse, on the basis of the home circumstances. The job is to educate the whole child, not to immediately embroil them in petty bureaucracy.
    There should be no charges for anything in school that all children need, food is not an optional extra.

  • Helen Dudden 8th Mar '14 - 8:51am

    For once, I can agree with the above post.

    Having had some input into care of children and how to move forward. I still believe that some of the past ideas were good.

    Health issues could be picked up. All children need to be feed properly, and this happens in other countries, feed children, and they work and learn better.

  • “Funny how funding can be found for this & other coalition goodies yet we are supposedly skint & facing a £20 billion black hole in the next year……”

    Of course funding can be found for it. There’s an election next year, and the main beneficiaries will be the middle-class voters who are being courted by both the coalition parties.

  • “The Government has previously announced that £150m of capital funding will be available to help schools adapt their facilities, but because this funding will be allocated by number of pupils rather than the current state of each school’s facilities, there is a real danger that not enough of this money will go where it is needed the most.”

    This will give some schools funding they don’t require and leave others short. So why not change the rule?

  • A Social Liberal 11th Mar '14 - 8:41pm

    Sorry Chris

    The middle class voters may get something out of this but the real winners are the children who won’t be seen as different since free meals will then be universal.

    It’s just a shame this cannot be floated out to secondary schools!

  • Helen Dudden 13th Mar '14 - 10:48am

    Do you mean those children who are not being fed properly, or everyone.

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