Should the taxpayer continue to fund free school meals? | Education
Universal free meals for children in key stage 1 are rumoured to be under threat, possibly in tomorrow’s budget. The policy has been controversial since it was introduced in 2014 by the coalition government.
headteacher, St Matthew’s primary school, Cambridge
YES. I questioned the policy when it started as I thought the funding could have been targeted at the children who most needed it. But I have seen the impact it has had on my school. There’s been a big uptake in school meals, which helps to improve the quality of school meals for everybody. More children are now accessing nutritious food at lunchtime at lower prices, due to economies of scale.
It’s also changed behaviour in key stage 2. We have seen more children continue to opt for school meals, and an increase in the number of children who register for pupil premium so that they can continue to get their meals for free. So I think it has helped more disadvantaged children to get support that they weren’t accessing before the policy came in.
Food poverty is a challenge in our community, and not just for children who qualify for pupil premium. A lot of parents are in low-paid employment, with children who don’t quite qualify for support. They are right on that boundary. By making free school meals universal, we are supporting families who are struggling to make ends meet.
Many schools have put in new kitchens, employed additional kitchen staff, midday supervisors and office staff to manage the big increase in the number of school meals. To suddenly turn around a few years later and take the funding away would be typical of the thoughtlessness and disregard government can show to schools and the communities they serve, and their failure to understand what it’s like on the ground. I find it really quite insulting. The government needs to have a proper long-term strategy for dealing with poverty and disadvantage in childhood, instead of flip-flopping between policies.
CEO, Passmores Co-operative Learning Community trust, which includes three primary schools in Essex
NO. I would like to say yes, because we should be able to fund universal infant school meals alongside everything we have lost because of austerity. However, I’ve had my idealism battered out of me over the last few years. I’ve got to be realistic. There is only so much money in the public pot and this policy means we are spending money on food for some affluent families. That is not the best use of that money, which should be spent on our most vulnerable children.
A hungry child doesn’t learn well and it’s right that children get a decent meal every day at school. But the government says there’s not enough money to do everything, that we can’t afford a short waiting list for mental health services for young people in crisis, that Sure Start centres have to shut. If we could reinvest in those services, sacrificing free meals for the families who can afford to pay for them would be worth it.
The other issue is that at our school we have to use money from our education budget to supplement the cost of providing free meals. The amount the government provides is around 30p short per child, per day. Those costs add up. Money that could be spent on teachers is feeding children of some families who could afford to feed themselves.
So I would support cutting back on funding for this policy as long as the most deprived families continue to be eligible for free meals and there’s a guarantee that the money saved stays in education. The problem is that when the government cuts back on something for young people, the money often disappears into a different pot.
school governor and education campaigner, Dorset
NO. There is no evidence the policy has any of the educational or health benefits that were promised when it was introduced. It’s costing schools money as they are forced to subsidise the policy from teaching budgets because it has never been properly funded. The government pays only £2.30 per meal, which was the average cost of providing a meal in 2011. Food prices have risen. Any costs over £2.30, schools are having to fund from teaching budgets because they are legally obliged to provide those children with a free school meal.
As a result, the catering industry has made a lot of money out of this policy. They have a great vested interest in keeping the policy going.
Because of austerity, there are children going hungry.
A primary school can have a child of a millionaire sitting with a free meal next to a child living in poverty, who is a year older and doesn’t get a meal. That is obviously not fair. We should be prioritising based on need, rather than a child’s age. Instead of funding this policy, the government should offer targeted interventions. Free school meal eligibility should be expanded to include everybody whose parents are claiming universal credit, and funding for holiday hunger projects should be increased.
headteacher, Millfield primary school, Walsall
YES. In fact, I would like to see universal free meals for all primary pupils. And I would like the policy to be properly funded, so no school has to spend money from its education budget on food.
Not all families in poverty are eligible for free school meals. Some on low incomes rely on meals being provided at school so they do not necessarily need to give their children a hot meal in the evening. It helps to lift them out of poverty. I would worry about those families if the funding were taken away.
At our school, we have seen positive changes in afternoon concentration levels since the policy came in. Children are not eating junk food at lunchtime any more. Free meals also encourage children to develop healthy eating habits and expose them to new foods.
CEO of the charity School-Home Support
YES. We work with a large number of families whose children are not eligible for means-tested free school meals, because of their family income. But they’re still living in poverty because rents are extortionate. Parents are having to choose between buying food and paying the rent.
If the benefit is not universal, children will always slip through the net. For example, because of their immigration status, some children have no recourse to public funds.
We see how not having a free meal during school holidays impacts families. Often, parents go without food themselves. If this policy were to end, the holiday hunger issue would expand to school time too.
The stress that comes with food poverty affects children’s mental health as well as parents’ mental health – this affects their behaviour, attendance and attainment at school and makes them worry about what they’re going to eat.
Schools are suffering on the budgets they have got. But dropping a policy that has been successful and made a difference is not the solution.
There is one little boy we are working with who only gets a decent meal at lunchtime at school. His mother is working, but she cannot afford to give him anything except a sandwich in the evening. She has to prioritise food for her two older children, who do not qualify for free school meals.
At home this little boy gets sandwiches, which he never cuts in half because that would create crumbs. He cannot bear to see those crumbs wasted on his plate. If that child loses free school meals, what will happen to him?