Dinner snatchers: Are cuts to infant school dinners the dish of the day?

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With November’s Comprehensive Spending Review fast approaching, what is and isn’t mentioned in ministerial speeches at Conservative Party Conference should be taken as an indication of what is and isn’t up for grabs. Having been a general election commitment is no guarantee.

The media coverage of Nicky Morgan’s speech today is likely to touch on her newly acquired status as an ‘outsider’ for next Tory leader. She is speaking on the same day as other higher profile pretenders to the crown including Home Secretary, Theresa May and Secretary of State for Self-Promotion, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

However, for many of us whether Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, mentions universal free school meals for infants at all is of greater immediate interest.

Those of us who have seen universal free school meals in action in Labour held councils – including Hull, Durham, Southwark, Islington and Newham – may have been slightly sceptical at the Lib Dem late conversion to the cause. The policy was implemented in the autumn last year, at the Lib Dem’s insistence. It seemed secure, if not for a generation but at least for the next parliamentary term, when the policy made its way in to all three main party manifestos.

News reports over the past month trailing the potential demise of the policy have felt like kite flying. Testing the water to see what the reaction would be. Despite the Prime Minister’s reassurances a week ago that free school meals for infants wouldn’t be cut, doubts will remain unless Nicky Morgan publically supports the policy in her speech. These doubts are fuelled by the Department of Education’s response to the petition calling on the government not to scrap the policy. The words used are ambiguous and start with the following ominous paragraph:

“The Government is currently conducting a Spending Review across all its programmes. Therefore, every policy across Whitehall is being reviewed as part of this process and no decisions have yet been taken.”

This was always a controversial policy for the Tories for whom universalism is passé and cuts are the dish of the day. But this is a policy that benefits all children but particularly the most vulnerable children – from health, attainment, removing stigma and not least to preventing hunger in schools. It also benefits family finances by up to £500 per child per year.

If the policy doesn’t survive, it will be because the view that children of better of parents shouldn’t get their school meals free prevails and used cynically as an excuse for cuts. However, as the Conservative commissioned authors of the School Food Plan, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, wrote:

“If you applied this reasoning across the board, you would ned to dismantle the state school system and, indeed, the NHS. If there is a net benefit to children and the country as a result of universal school meals, it should not matter if children from wealthier families get fed well too.”

If the policy survives November’s Comprehensive Spending Review, it will be down to the common sense evidence based approach of the School Food Plan and the evident popularity of the policy with parents, pressure from teachers, unions and food professionals. It will be because of the sheer and obvious idiocy of wasting the investment involved in equipping schools over the past year and because of parliamentary pressure and media disapproval. It will due to every one of us who supports the policy doing whatever we can to protect it.

If the policy survives, we cannot rest. We then need to fight for funding to be more than protected but increased to reflect not just inflation but the true cost of provision, as many councils and schools reported having to subsidise equipment. We need evidence gathered of the benefits in schools and for children so that we can build up ammunition against future attacks on the policy and argue for expansion in later years at school.

There is little we have to thank Mrs Thatcher for but, if the policy survives it will also be down to her epitaph of ‘milk snatcher’. For whatever the sums add up to, no prime minister, education secretary or chancellor wants to be the one responsible for taking food from the mouths of children. It would genuinely be better all round for any snatching by Osborne, Cameron and Morgan of school meals to be of Labour policy rather than food.

Fiona Twycross AM, Labour Londonwide Assembly Member

You can sign the petition to call on the Government not to scrap free school meals here.

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