The Independent View: Free school meals is universalism at its best – all children benefit, but low-income children benefit most

school mealsSo the summer is over and it’s back to school time. But there is a silver lining to the autumnal clouds: free school meals. On their first day back at school, all infants school pupils (4 to 7 year olds) should be able to sit down to enjoy a free, nutritious meal.

This is one of the rare occasions when politics visibly touches normal family life, saving harassed parents the need to make a packed lunch and saving them money at the same time. Families will save almost £10 a week on average for every child benefiting from the policy.

Families up and down the country for years to come will benefit from the leadership of local and national politicians of all parties in helping to make this happen. From the previous government and local authorities for piloting and taking it forward at a local level, to Michael Gove for backing the idea in principle, to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats for getting the Coalition to implement it. And now the Liberal Democrats have gone even further pledging to extend it to all primary school children if they are in government post-election.

We know that kids are expensive. Our recent research found meeting the basic needs of a child costs over £160 per week. National policy is struggling to keep pace with these rising costs, leaving many families struggling.

The lesser known, and more shocking, fact is that school costs. We put our faith in education as holding the key to allow everyone to achieve and prosper, but in fact, we have found that kids’ education is being steered by costs. This could be choosing a school based on the cost of the uniform or avoiding subjects with extra costs attached, like art or photography.

Even more damaging is the effect that hunger can have on a child’s ability to learn, grow and enjoy. Many families struggle to meet the costs of a school lunch, and instead go for a cheaper packed lunch. But only 1% of packed lunches meet the basic nutritional criteria required of all school meals. We know that kids are going hungry in school. Sixty per cent of teachers have given food to pupils at their own expense.

This is no surprise. Food comprises a quarter of the basic cost of a child. The price of food has increased 25 per cent over the past six years. However, free school lunches reduce the cost of food for a child by a third.
To us, this policy is a complete no-brainer. Lessons aren’t means-tested, and you don’t pay for your meals in hospital, so why are school lunches a different matter?

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to the councils who offer all primary school pupils free school meals, and have done for several years. They are the biggest advocates for the policy. They genuinely struggle to remember the painful process of getting schools and kitchens ready with only a few months’ notice. Instead they talk about watching kids eating together and learning together.

Teachers report improved concentration levels in classrooms. Parents talk about being able to move into work, without worrying about their children losing eligibility for free school meals. It’s a policy that makes sense, and not one that they are willing to let go of even as budgets get tighter and tighter.

It’s universalism at its best: all children benefit, but low income children benefit the most.

As excited as we are by all infant school children now being entitled to a free school meal, this is only the first step. We want to see all school children receiving a free school meal, and we would encourage all political parties to follow the Lib Dem’s lead and commit to expanding universal free school meal provision to older children. In the meantime, councils can follow the excellent lead of councils such as Islington and provide universal free school meals to all primary school children.

* Alison Garnham is Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group.

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12 Comments

  • Geoffrey Payne 3rd Sep '14 - 1:31pm

    Indeed I think that in this supportive article the key word is “universalism”.
    Why do we support universalism for school dinners but not for child benefit?
    The advantage of universalism is that it saves on the form filling and the bureaucracy and it gives everyone a stake in supporting the policy regardless of income.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Sep '14 - 1:44pm

    According to the Department for Education (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/266339/DFE-RR319.pdf), 18.1% of children in English schools were already receiving free school meals and 2.4% were entitled but not registered.
    Presumably these are some of the lowest-income children, but it is the other 80% of higher income families that “will save almost £10 a week on average for every child benefiting from the policy”.
    No one disputes the benefits of a healthy lunch for a child, but in terms of alleviating child poverty and improving educational outcomes, does this policy represent the best way to spend so much money? Or is it simply an expensive pre-election bribe for middle-class parents who lost their child benefit shortly after the last election?

  • Julian Tisi 3rd Sep '14 - 2:04pm

    I thoroughly agree with this policy ans for the reasons Alison Garnham so eloquently outlines. Free school meals has a number of social benefits – including the reduced overall cost through economies of scale, the improved nutritional content of meals compared to the average packed lunch (meaning children will concentrate better for example) but also small things like eating the same lunch together with your peers at school.

    But I think we have to recognise that universalism costs money. That’s why I’d make a distinction between this policy on the one hand, say, and child benefit on the other, which is simply a cash payment to parents – some of whom will not need the cash as much as others. I think the Lib Dems are right to say that in a time of austerity, those sho can afford not to receive child benefit don’t receive it.

    I’d apply the same rule to other “universal” benefits too. The winter fuel allowance I think should be means-tested (unless of course doing so would not in fact save money). But I’d keep the universal bus pass as I think there is a clear social benefit beyond the value of the pass – namely to get pensioners mobile (and in a low-carbon way!).

  • Families will save almost £10 a week on average for every child benefiting from the policy

    So basically those who do not have children (ie, me) are paying for other people’s lifestyle choices at the rate of £10 per week per child?

    As if the Liberal Democrats needed to alienate any other groups of voters…

  • Personally I could never see the logic behind this policy.

    If the argument is that Children learn better after having a hot and nourishing meal, why then was this policy aimed at free lunches and not a breakfast club?

    Assuming school timetables operate on the same basis as they did when I was at school. You used to have
    2 classes.
    (20 Minute) Mid Morning Break
    2 classes
    (1 Hour) Lunch Break
    2 classes

    Surely if the argument is that this policy improves the learning capacity of a Child after having a nutritious hot meal, why then was it aimed at free (Lunches) where the child would then only benefit for the last 2 lessons of the day.

    Personally I always thought it was hogwash. The most important meal of the day is Breakfast and there are many children that leave for school early in the mornings without having adequate breakfast. There are millions of low income families struggling with weekly food costs.
    The most disadvantaged children in our society do not benefit from this new policy as the majority of them where already in receipt of free school lunches.
    The only people who benefited are those on middle / higher incomes who no longer have to fund their own children lunches.

    The argument that policy will benefit all children because children perform better when they all sit down to a lunch together is also hogwash in my opinion. Where is the evidence for such a claim? Considering there are many schools that simply do not have space or facilities for the entire school to sit down together and eat a meal and many are having to resort to staggering lunches, using Mobiles, Halls, etc.
    Then there is the fact that many schools are not even capable of preparing and cooking so many Hot lunches all to be served and eaten within a 1 hour lunch break on site and are having to use external suppliers.

    In Australia they have a proven record on Breakfast clubs and how it improved the education of children for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    The Half Billion spent on this policy for free lunches is a huge waste of scarce resources in my opinion and could have been directed else where to benefit children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    Finally, I don’t really like the idea of the state dictating to parents what is and isn’t an adequate healthy lunch, it’s authoritarian

  • Matt

    There is merit in the breakfast argument. I would hope that lunch has been used to get a foot in the door and justify why schools need to have kitchens, so introducing breakfasts becomes a small additional step (funded from a further reduction in the child benefit and/or married persons allowance). Doing it the other way around (ie. free breakfast) would most probably not have resulted in schools getting fully functional and staffed kitchens…

    Yes according to the papers, it does seem that some schools are unable to operate the service from the beginning of term, but given the numbers involved, the timescales and the differing problems each school presented in providing kitchen and dining spaces, I do think that this policy will go down as a success.

  • See – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/primaryeducation/10318087/Everyone-benefits-from-free-school-meals.html and https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/184047/DFE-RR227.pdf

    The report says there are clear significant educational benefits. – particularly among less well-off pupils. It also significantly increases free school meals take-up among those eligible for them. It also helps those just above the cut off for eligibility for free school meals and those on say £17k – £22k are not well off and indeed might be less “well off” than those on less than £17k.

    It does say that there might be other educational interventions that are more cost effective but doesn’t specify them. But for me bringing every child together equally is as important as the education benefits.

    I am in favour of universalism and it is always under pressure. And it is disappointing that there has been some reduction as regards child benefit and clawing it back from those earning high salaries but that is understandable in a tough financial climate.

  • Peter Watson 4th Sep '14 - 10:57am

    @Jimble
    Some very interesting points on that blog about the way that the universal free school meal policy has evolved and been spun.

  • Jimble, I agree with Peter some interesting points raised. However, reading the blog I did get a certain amount of deja vu, as over years I’ve seen many major business investments being made based on a few notes on the back of the napkin/cigarette packet, but because they have a main board director’s support/signature they happen.

    My question over UIFSM arising from the blog, is to what extent Nick et al were really committed to UIFSM and hence actively kept involved driving the initative forward. As for the difference between Nick’s policy of a “big bang” against the recommended phased rollout,

    I would side with Nick – if the opportunity is there, push hard and make a difference. Remember when this policy announcement was made, the coalition were playing around with child benefit and married person’s allowance; so committing to a policy in a way that would damage the Conservatives if they blocked it (and Labour if they opposed it) and that would probably take a substantial amount of the (child benefit) monies being freed up, makes sense. Plus any government post May 2015 – when government monies will be even tighter than they are now, will not be able to easily (and quietly) back track on this policy.

    As for the problems at the DfE – well, as Lou Gerstner demonstrated in the years following 1993, elephants can dance.

  • Peter Watson 4th Sep '14 - 1:52pm

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