Michael Gove is often said to be the most ideologically obsessed education secretary ever.
He is a man on a mission to introduce market forces into the education system in the fevered belief that this will raise standards. And he isn’t going to let mere evidence and research get in his way.
Nothing could prove this point more strongly than last week’s research published by the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) into the Labour Government’s trials of giving all primary school children a free school meal.
The results were very impressive: According to the IFS and NatCen universal free school meals “significantly increased attainment”. Children in the two pilot areas looked at (County Durham and the London Borough of Newham) made between four and eight weeks extra progress at school than similar children in similar areas. Over two years of schooling that’s a lot of extra progress.
In addition, the extra number of children eating school meals meant that the consumption of healthy school food increased and the consumption of less healthy snacks, like crisps fell.
In Islington we introduced free school meals for all primary school children a couple of years ago and have kept this programme going despite the massive Tory and Lib Dem cuts to our Council. One parent in my ward recently told me:
“Feedback from teachers at our children’s primary school suggests that concentration rates are very high and that they feel that this is attributable to the fact that virtually every child in the school gets a balanced, nutritious meal every day. Given that health issues and poor nutrition are so prominent in the recent Islington Public Health report, continuing this policy as long as possible can only help to improve children’s diets and contribute to their well-being”.
The London Borough of Southwark are also introducing free school meals for all and report similar results.
A recent Guardian survey of teachers showed that the Tory-led Government’s cuts, and the recession those cuts have caused, mean more children go to school hungry. Teachers report that many of these children don’t belong to families who live in poverty and qualify for a free school meal. Increasingly hungry children come from families on the breadline, just above the income level to qualify for free school meals but still struggling in the current economic climate.
While it is shameful that in our nation in the 21st century children are being held back in schools because of hunger, universal free school meals gives these kids who live on the breadline, not just those in absolute poverty, at least one hot, healthy and nutritious meal a day. In Islington more than half of those who benefit from the scheme live in a family whose income is under £30,000 a year.
These families on the edge of poverty are usually also on the edge of the labour market and so are doubly helped because free school meals for all also reduces the poverty trap by reducing the benefits lost when someone gets a job. The Government talks about making work pay; universal free school meals is fundamental to that.
So surely this policy is a whole hearted success. Yes, Labour should have been more radical in Government and introduced free school meals for all instead of just run some pilots, but the policy has been shown to be successful and, one assumes, this Government will now roll it out across the country.
Except that, sadly, Mr Gove is the Secretary of State responsible.
The Department for Education response to the IFS and NatCen report was a loud raspberry. A spokesperson said: “it is not viable to continue the universal pilots in the current financial climate”.
But it is simply wrong to say universal free school meals isn’t affordable. It is simply a question of how Gove’s Department for Education wishes to spend its money.
The evidence for universal free school meals is clear. The evidence about free schools is very much less clear.
The evidence about effectiveness of free schools is, at best, highly mixed. But perhaps the most telling comments are by the Swedish centre-right education minister Bertil Ostberg, who said: “We have actually seen a fall in the quality of Swedish schools since the free schools were introduced.”
Yet Gove the ideologue pumped in tens of millions to kick start free schools, not least a total of £50m – taken out of an axed technology fund for schools up to April 2011. £500,000 was given to the New Schools Network to encourage applications to free schools. The Department for Education said last year that the first 24 schools would cost between £110 and £130 million a year, and this doesn’t even take into account the fact that many of these were opened in temporary buildings and the cost of finding permanent accommodation has not been revealed..
Mr Gove even managed to raise £370,000 from private donors to send a King James bible which is own name on it to every school. Just imagine how much he could raise to fund a scheme that was actually shown to be effective?
The reality is that there is the money within the Department for Education to fund free school meals for all if a future Labour Government is serious about ending the ineffective vanity projects of the current Secretary of State.