By sheer happenstance I was being interviewed by a BBC local radio station at 5pm on Tuesday when the story about free school lunches for all 4-7 year olds was released. The news that 16-17 year olds studying in further education will also be eligible for free meals on the same terms as their colleagues in schools was rather lost in the bigger announcement.
As a result of being in the BBC’s Glasgow conference set up I received a full briefing just by listening to those around me reciting their pieces to the different radio channels and stations news bulletins around the country. Consequently, I was able to respond to my interview’s questions with rather more fluency that might otherwise have been the case, and indeed with more fluency than on the story about reading that was the reason I was ‘on air’ in the first place.
But, enough about me: this is a policy that is a game changer. No creating sheep and goats in the primary schools of the future; no worry for those parents who dip in and out of poverty about whether they qualify for free meals if they take a particular job; no rows about packed lunches and what might be in them today, and where to find the time to shop for them and then put them together. And, on the positive side, children will be learning social habit together; children being introduced to new types of food; less exposure to unhealthy food; better concentration in the afternoon; and every child with at least one hot meal a day.
The way the policy is to be paid for is yet to be announced, and local authorities will be asking about the capital costs for kitchens, and the delivery expenses for rural schools where meals are prepared centrally. These are important consideration to be overcome, but small in proportion to the good that the policy can deliver.
There are those who decry the use of universal benefits even when, as in this case, the benefit is both financially and socially useful to society as a whole, but better off parents can choose to donate the cost of the meals to charities such as Children in Need or their local food bank. For others is is like an annual cash boost of around £500 per child on the wage packet.
Eventually, I hope that the cash can be found to extend the policy to all at the junior stage of education, up to age 11. Habits are reinforced at that stage, and the link between the endless TV programmes on food and the reality of lunches can be made even more apparent as children begin to question what is put before them.
One other question that will inevitably arise is whether teachers will be expected to eat with the pupils or to be allowed a clear break at lunch-time? Many may choose the compromise of eating the actual meal together, but then retiring to the staffroom for a deserved bit of ‘me’ time. So, there may be some extra staffing costs in lunch-time supervision as all children stay on site.
Nevertheless, this to me is one of the best achievement for the whole of our school system in many a long year. I cannot recall the last time I felt so good in front of a BBC microphone. It was a strange feeling.