Making the (Labour) case for universal free school meals

18th June, 2010 12:23 pm

Hands off lunch Free school mealsBy Alex Smith / @alexsmith1982

In response to Neal Lawson’s Guardian article last week, I wrote that universal free school meals were part of the next stage of the soul of the Labour Party.

A couple of commenters raised objections then at the fairness of the policy, which is one I’ve fought for in Islington for some time. Magna Carta, for example, wrote:

“Ok, maybe I’m wrong and it appeals to Labour voters, but why would you think forcing additional taxation on families like mine and taking control of something we can manage perfectly well ourselves is a good thing?”

John McTernan, the former adviser at Number 10 also disapproves. He wrote on the Telegraph blog last week:

“Unfortunately the Lawson critique has been echoed by the excellent Alex Smith on LabourList with the addition of universal free school meals as the policy definition of the next frontier of the Welfare state. Puh-lease! A subsidy to middle-class families to get their children to eat a meal they wouldn’t give their kids even if they were paid. And at a time when Child Benefit might well be means-tested. Jamie Oliver has a lot to answer for.”

The first time I learned of Islington Labour’s universal free school meals policy, my own reaction was similar to John’s and Magna’s. Why should wealthier families be subsidised by the state when they can already afford to pay for their own kids’ lunches?

I quickly changed my mind on the basis of the arguments and evidence of the places it has already been trialled. Let me try to remake that argument now.

We have in this country the principle of universal healthcare and education, free at the point of service. It’s a civilised principle, that puts the needs of people first. If you bring those two principles together, of health and education, then it’s easy to see why all our children should be fed during their six hours or more in the care of the state. To me, it’s as basic as providing a pencil or a notebook – without nutrition, children simply cannot learn as well as they otherwise might.

Secondly, as the Eat Well Do Well report on the universal free school meals pilot in Hull shows, if a child has a hot meal during the day, or at the beginning of the day, it improves exponentially that child’s ability to learn. It improves the behaviour, concentration and ability to settle and listen of all children. Children are less tired and irritable when they have a meal in them. That, in turn, makes teaching easier, and more enjoyable. And these experiences are shown to benefit the most disadvantaged the most, by virtue of their value added. Over 80% of Hull teachers were in favour of universality, based on their experience.

Moreover, other significant positive impacts were found across a variety of different indicators, including physical wellbeing. At a time when we fear a future of obesity for our children, that’s important.

The knock-on effects, even in the home of the child, are also significant. In 30% of cases studied by the Eat Well Do Well report, children had taken their better dietary habits back into the home, improving diets there too. Data from the report show that the pilots had built up a positive impact on pupils’ eating habits generally, with fewer avoiding breakfast, fewer reporting that they were feeling hungry at the end of the day and a good deal more pupils reporting that they were having an evening meal. Eating on the way to school showed a decline from 6.4% 4.7% in just two years of the universality pilot, amongst middle class children as well as underprivileged children. Also in decline was the percentage of pupils who reported having no breakfast. Within the “key group”, disadvantaged children, the number of children who went without breakfast more than halved in percentage terms from 7.9% to 3.0% during the course of the trial. The report also suggests that the longer children took up the free meals, the more profound the impact became.

And in a time when schools are letting down disadvantaged boys, in particular, it’s notable to see that amongst that group, those boys who felt hungry (and thereby being less ready for school, and less able to learn) fell from 30% to 19% over just two years of the universal free school meals trial.

The Eat Well Do Well report makes the healthcare and education argument clearly, and the case for universality is also supported by the Child Poverty Action Group.

Next, there’s the social case. The narrow eligability of the current free school meals provision means that many children, including one million who currently live in poverty, do not currently qualify for the meals. Those million children fall marginally below the threshold for receiving the benefit. Extending that threshold to include those children clearly makes sense.

But it also makes sense to do more. Because there is currently, with the means tested free school meals provision, a problem around claiming the benefit that means that even many families who are eligable do not claim them, for fear of being stigmatised. While the children themselves may not, in the early years at least, feel that they are being treated differently from the rest, the evidence shows that one in four children who are currently eligable for the benefit do not claim it. The University of Hull report attributes this to “fear of stigma and bullying, the bureaucracy involved in claiming them and lack of awareness about who is eligible”. 71% of teachers and support staff in Hull felt that there was less stigma attached to taking up universal free school meals than under the means tested system.

That lack of awareness is also an issue, particularly amongst those who need a free school meal the most. Children can currently only get free school meals if their parents or carers receive income support, income-based Jobseekers Allowance, the guaranteed element of state pension credit, or child tax credit – but only provided they are not entitled to working tax credit and have an annual income less than £14,155. Such a confusing system hardly encourages widespread takeup.

But where universal free school meals have been piloted, for example in Hull, the scheme resulted in a high uptake of free dinners, with 64% of children taking part. Nationally, on the other hand, the uptake of school dinners is plummeting. That will continue if current provisions are cut by the coalition.

Moreover, schools base much of their administration on how many children receive free school meals. By making that distinction between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, amongst children aged five and their families, we drive a wedge between those who have and those who have not, and exacerbate the eqaulity gap. But instead of saying to children and families that they are different based on their wealth, the first day of school should be an opportunity for the state to say “you’re all the same.”

Even packed lunches are not healthy or helpful for a child’s learning. As the Hull report said:

“The first important factor about packed lunches is that the types of foods provided by a packed lunch generally do not require children to learn how to use knives and forks. Teachers have commented on the increased number of children who have a lack of table manners and inability to hold cutlery correctly and we reported this in our second interim findings. Children having a school dinner could therefore benefit from peer modelling through teacher and peers in the social situation of eating with a knife and fork and sitting around a dinner table.

“The daily provision of crisps, sweets and snack foods in a packed lunch leads children to believe these are everyday foods rather than occasional foods which should act as treats within a healthy balanced diet. An independent test carried out in the present analysis, found that those children who had a packed lunch obtained far higher intakes of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium than the children who had a hot school dinner.”

The social case for children eating together, learning together, conversing together and understanding that mealtimes can be a time for thinking and learning is powerful. I’ve seen in myself at schools in Islington. There’s no segregation between those eating packed lunches and school meals. There’s no segregation at all. Young children and the teachers sit together, eat together, talk together, and then return their plates to the end of the room. It’s how it should be.

That is true of middle class kids as well as working class or disadvantaged kids.

Then there are practical barriers to the implementation of univeral free school meals. Money, of course, is one – particularly in these times of national austerity. And the Hull report does also show that while few people require convincing of the health benefits of the scheme, some do express concern over the financial cost.

This comes down to what you want your state to do: do you want to scale it back at times of hardship, as the Conservatives do, or do you want to use it to support those who would most suffer from economic crisis, and to address the fundamental issue in our society – inequality – that is worsened by economic crisis, and which in any case so contributed to the crash in the first place?

I understand that universal free school meals was almost in Labour’s 2010 manifesto, but was removed in the final analysis because the government wanted to make “no big spending commitments”. That’s understandable, but also an example of the small c conservatism – and the inability to make a radical argument – that so blighted New Labour in power.

Moreover, when you start to provide universal free meals in schools, new opportunities open up that make the policy more cost effective. The economies of scale dictate that, per meal, delivery becomes cheaper in the long term. Because more schools meals are taken, schools can begin to buy local produce on a regular basis, with an impact on the local economy. They can even, if they have space, grow their own food on site. Also in the long term, when children grow up healthily, and learn good dietary habits, the future NHS costs for obesity, heart disease, etc, can also be reduced.

When the leadership candidates were asked about universal free school meals by and Islingston GMB member at last Monday’s hustings, all six (John McDonnell was still involved then) were supportive. At hustings recently, Ed Balls has criticsed Frank Field’s cuts to free school meals, even in their current form. According to Balls’ powerful stump, Field said that it’s a parent’s responsibilty to make sure their child arrives at school fed. As we still in the Labour Party know, that’s not always possible for families.

In the face of the coalition slashing even the existing free school meals budgets, we should be using these arguments for universal free school meals, which disproportionately help the disadvantaged, but which also help develop a sense of togetherness in times of difficulty, and a sense that it’s not OK to segregate the rich from the poor at an early age, or at any age. It’s a case I think we should make loudly.

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