No child should be too hungry to learn

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Universal healthy free school meals is a policy that has been pioneered by Labour and by Labour councils in Southwark, Hull, Newham, Islington and Durham. At the National Policy Forum (NPF) over the weekend, Labour’s policy for the General Election was thrashed out and during this a commitment was made to finding ways to extend this cross cutting policy. The consensus wording makes Labour’s current record and future ambitions on free school meals clear.

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Just over a year ago, the School Food Plan commissioned by the current government published a commitment to the principle of universal free school meals. This was followed last September by the both frustrating and welcome move (for those of us campaigning on the issue) by the coalition, which saw them pledge pledge to roll out the policy earlier than the School Food Plan suggested, and consequently beat Labour to it. The Liberal Democrats were previously and vehemently opposed to the policy on the ground. They – and Gove –  were convinced of the benefits at a national level by evidence provided by evaluations of pilots carried out by the Labour government.

This element of the School Food Plant will be implemented by September, meaning that, by the election, many parents, teachers and school governors will see the impact of the policy on the ground and form opinions based on the evidence of the policy in practice. Experience suggests that this will produce tens of thousands of advocates for healthy free school meals for all. It is no surprise that many of Labour party members most passionate about the policy live in areas that have, or have had, universal free school meals.

It would be unthinkable now for any incoming government to remove free school meals for infants. By May next year, parents of 4, 5 and 6 year olds will have had almost a full school year of universal school meals. Be in no doubt (and if you do doubt it ask activists from the areas that have free school meals) that this will be a popular policy on the doorstep.

Any implementation issues will be resolved swiftly, so for many infant school children, their memories of school will include a tasty and nutritious meal at lunchtime.

Even after her death, most obituaries of Mrs Thatcher still referred to her as ‘milk snatcher’ forty years. It’s promising that we could now see a situation in which all three main parties include free school meals in their manifesto. Sometimes (very occasionally) we should welcome the comment that ‘all parties are the same’. Nobody is likely to take the risk of being different if this means being the party or minister effectively taking food out of the mouths of small children.

The consensus wording  (which you can find below) recognises that universal free school meals is a policy that cuts across departments and is a solution – in part – to many of the big issues government should address. From the stigma children on free school meals face (which can result in life-long damage) ,to family finances, the obesity crisis, the diabetes’ time bomb and removing barriers to work, this policy is everything a One Nation policy should be. It does all that as well as what all education policies should – universal free school meals raise attainment for all children, and the attainment of children previously on free school meals the most.

As highlighted by LabourList’s coverage of the NPF, consensus on free school meals at the weekend took longer than many convinced of the policy’s benefit might have anticipated – I for one never expected to see it listed alongside the ever contentious Trident. It is, however, a strength of the NPF process – and of the Labour Party – that debate took place and that a resolution was reached. This resolution also recognises that we need to find ways to extend the policy further in the future, as well as ensuring that schools have kitchens and that, as part of wrap-around provision, children should have breakfast.

Above all, however, the consensus wording reclaims the policy as ours. It makes it clear this is a policy that is core to our Labour values and that, with a Labour government, no child should be too hungry to learn.

Fiona Twycross is a Labour London Assembly Member

Full text of the final consensus wording agreed between the Shadow Team, London, Yorkshire and East Midlands CLP delegates and the GMB Union:

“Free school meals is a policy that is core to our Labour Party values, which is why we will continue the universal free school meals initiative for all infants in English primary schools.

Having fought the policy for decades, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties now appreciate that Free School Meals can raise attainment, remove stigma and barriers to work, address the obesity challenge and cost of living crisis. This realisation is thanks to the pioneering work of Labour councils in Hull, Islington, Southwark, Newham and Durham which demonstrated that attainment levels rose for all children not just those entitled to free school meals.

We pay tribute to these councils’ work and support other Labour local authorities hoping to draw on a range of funding streams to develop this policy further.

In government, we will ensure that allocated capital funds are spent effectively and new kitchen facilities delivered.

Beginning with our plans for wrap-around provision at school, we will work with schools to develop breakfast clubs. We know how important the value of a good meal is for the ability of children to study and succeed.

As part of our determination to transform the life chances of children in our country, the next Labour government will recognise the cross-cutting nature of the free school meals policy and as such will work alongside stakeholder departments in central and local government to ensure that no child is too hungry to learn.”

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