Clegg: “Every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day”

by Stephen Tall on September 17, 2013

school childrenNick Clegg’s speech to the Lib Dem conference on Wednesday will contain one new, significant policy announcement: all pupils at infant schools in England are to get free school lunches from next September.

In addition, disadvantaged students at sixth form colleges and further education colleges in England will also be eligible for free school meals also from next September. Money is also being provided for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but as education is a devolved issue, it will be up to those running schools there to decide whether to spend the money on free lunches.

The policy will cost an estimated £600m per year, and save parents about £400 a year per child.

Here’s what Nick had to say:

“My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day. Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze… I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families.

“We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits. Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society.”

Free school meals was one of the ideas put forward in The School Food Plan, undertaken by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. They found that in pilots where all children had been given a free school dinner, students were academically months ahead of their peers elsewhere. They tweeted their delight at the news:

There is a sting in the tail, though. The money for the new scheme is a quid pro quo with the Tories over the marriage tax allowance, expected to cost £550m and benefit a third of married couples by £150 a year. The Lib Dems agreed to abstain on the proposal within the Coalition Agreement, but the announcement today will sweeten that pill for Nick Clegg and the party.

It’s a headline-grabbing announcement that’s likely to be popular, one which directly helps families with young children with the cost of living. It is, of course, a universal benefit, something which generally the Coalition has been moving away from, by means-testing child benefit and with Nick Clegg’s call to end universal pensioner benefits such as the winter fuel allowance. It is also an expensive, ongoing commitment at a time when we’re constantly being told money is tight, with the UK’s mountain of debt continuing to build. It’s almost like an election’s coming…

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.