Laws: “99% of schools now have a plan in place to deliver universal free school meals in September”

by Stephen Tall on July 14, 2014

school mealsI’ll be honest. If I had the choice over where to direct £500 million a year of taxpayers’ money, universal free school meals for infants would not be top of my priority list.

That said, the sheer desperation of right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail for the policy to fail just to spite Nick Clegg strikes me as far more mean-spirited. It’s a policy which is highly popular with headteachers, and will be with parents too. Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s possibly the only Lib Dem policy ever to attract the support of Paul Staines (aka blogger Guido Fawkes):

I have been worried about the messaging coming from the Lib Dems, though. Under-promise and over-deliver is usually the best plan in politics. I remember Ken Livingstone being interviewed on the morning the congestion charge system kicked in admitting to an interviewer, “I’m just waiting for something to go wrong.” That struck the right note, especially when it all went off without a hitch.

So I was mostly reassured this week by a speech from Lib Dem schools minister David Laws that “based on evidence from local authorities, schools and the support service, over 99% of schools now have a plan in place to deliver universal free school meals in September”.

This won’t always be a hot school meal cooked on the premises, it’s true (the original Clegg aim). To begin with at least, many schools will rely either on delivered hot meals or cold packed lunches. However, the meal will still be a nutritious one — currently, fewer than 1% of packed lunches meet the school food standards.

But there will of course be complaints: in the schools which haven’t managed to meet the Government’s timetable and doubtless from parents unhappy about some aspect of their child’s lunch. Lib Dems should be fully prepared for the media to focus on those exceptions: negativity is what most news reporters are paid to engage in.

David Laws speaking at Lib Dem Spring conference, Liverpool 2008And here, for those wanting to be reminded of the reasons why the Lib Dems have pushed this policy, is an excerpt from David Laws’ speech this week

Take up of free and paid for meals increased dramatically during the Second World War – from just 3% at its outset, to over 30% at its conclusion.

Come 1946, the day of our now much loved ‘dinner lady’ dawned: popularity of school meals had grown so much that paid assistants were introduced to supervise children as they ate their lunch.

And in June 1949, the number of school dinners reached nearly 3 million, over half of the total school population.

Take up reached a high water mark in 1974, when 70% of pupils ate school meals.

But one thing is clear: since that peak in the 1970s, the number of children receiving school meals has been in steady decline.

In the 1980s, the then government cut back on free school meal entitlement, and removed some of the standards designed to ensure healthy meals.

Take up of meals, and the quality of much food, went into steep decline – with a fall in the proportion of children taking school meals from roughly 7 in 10 to just 4 in 10.

That has been bad for attainment in schools. It has been bad for children’s health and concentration. It has undermined the socialisation which comes from children sitting down together each day and eating together.

And the removal of free meals has been an extra pressure on family budgets which has particularly hit low income families who take the initiative to get into work, but who then find that they lose their entitlement to free meals which can be worth almost £1,500 per year for a family with 3 children.

Free school meals are sometimes regarded as an aspiration and idea from the political left.

But I regard this as a common sense policy for the mainstream majority.

I happen to have the old-fashioned view that given that these children are the responsibility of the school and the state for around 7 hours a day, the least we can do is ensure that they eat healthily.

Many of our minds are now on this September, when infants will have a new entitlement to a healthy meal at school.

This policy is the latest milestone in the long history of school meals.

And it is one of the most important.

It is the biggest expansion of free school meals in over 65 years.

1.5 million additional pupils will become entitled to a free meal.

Now every step forward in the last 100 years has had its critics.

But remember that the work you do has a proud and long-standing heritage. You are part of a progressive movement that has always had one overriding priority: to improve school food. …

The plan also recommended that the government should offer free school meals for all children in primary schools.

This was a big and radical idea; but it wasn’t a new one.

Durham and Newham and other parts of the country had already piloted universal free school meals.

The results were clear.

Good, healthy school food, combined with universal provision, had a positive effect on all pupils, but particularly on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Universal provision increased take-up among the disadvantaged who are eligible for meals, but don’t always take them up.

They removed the stigma of ‘being a free meals kid’.

They meant that the 1 in 4 children from working families, but who nevertheless live in poverty, got a meal for the first time.

When I visited a school recently in south London, I was moved when the headteacher told me about 1 parent who currently just misses out on free school meals, because she is in a low income job, being in tears after being told of the new entitlement, because of the positive impact it would have on her family’s budget.

Some people in the media seem to think our country is made up of very poor people on benefits who are the only ones needing financial help, and then the so called ‘middle classes’, who they view as all earning £100,000 or more each year.

But most people aren’t very poor or very rich. They are getting by. On £15,000, or £20,000, or £25,000. As a teacher in that London school said to me last week, ‘If you are a parent in London on £18,000 with 3 children, you don’t feel rich.’

This policy will make a huge difference to family budgets in these hard times. And do not worry about whether we are wasting money on families who can afford the meals – we are not paying for free meals in Eton, Westminster or Rugby private schools.

The pilots also showed that when universal free school meals were implemented, children were less likely to eat crisps and unhealthy packed lunches during the school day, and more likely to eat healthy food instead.

And, most importantly, there was a positive impact on children’s levels of literacy and numeracy.

Crucially, the pilots showed that to achieve the benefits of the policy it has to be a universal offer – to all children.

The pilots in which entitlement was only extended modestly to low income working families did not see the attainment and other benefits which we want to secure.

So this is a universal entitlement which we’re introducing not just because it’s popular with parents, though it most certainly is, but because the evidence shows that this is the right thing to do – the only way to secure the improved outcomes we want to see.

There are some who are against this policy as a point of principle. They don’t think it is the job of government to make sure all children get a healthy lunch.

Like those who blocked the first moves to provide healthy meals to school children 100 years ago, they argue it is too expensive; too radical; too difficult.

Government does not share that position.

We cannot allow some siren voices to undermine a policy that will save ordinary parents money and improve children’s education and health.

Left to their own devices, those who want to undermine this policy would take us back in time, unwinding over 100 years of progress on school food.

Government will not allow that to happen.

And that is why it is so important that we work together to make this policy a stunning success in September.

If we get this right, no one will be able to take it away – because it will be so popular with parents that no politician would dare.

That is the prize we are all working for.

* 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.