Bah humbug to free school meals for all?
Opposing Nick Clegg’s announcement of free school meals for all children in Infant classes in England would be about as popular as opposing Christmas. So I won’t bother. However, especially given that the announcement was made during a hooraying party conference, rather than through the proper, more testing channel of a parliamentary autumn statement, I’ll ask seven questions that might help others make their mind up.
1) How strong is the evidence that the pilot programmes have caused a rise in attainment, closing of the attainment gap, and reduction in obesity (all of which were claimed by Clegg and Leon founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent yesterday)? The evaluation report is less positive than advocates are claiming.
2) What percentage of benefiting parents will be be in the higher income brackets?
3) How sure are we that giving children free school meals until the age of seven leads to increased take up of paid school meals in the junior years and beyond?
4) How does this ringfenced funding align with government principles around school autonomy? If you had given this money to schools, with a soft suggestion to ‘buy’ free school meals for all, what they would have done with it?
5) How will the largely private sector companies which provide school meals benefit from this significant increase in school meals provision? Has any effort been made to negotiate with these companies to secure a better deal for schools?
6) What might be the best way to spend £600M to help close the attainment gap at age 7?
7) Alternatively, what might be the best way to spend £600M to help the families of approximately 700,00 children who face a cost of living crisis?
Patrick Butler’s blog convincingly explains the philosophical justification behind the universal extension of this benefit (ironically hypothecated with the introduction of means-tested child benefit). There may be a strong rationale for occasional gesture-based rather than evidence-based policymaking – it’s curiously similar to New Labour’s class size pledge in 1997. However welcome this new policy feels, it would still best be seen as a temporary policy on trial, rather than a permanent and irreversible new universal entitlement.