Sour grapes from Daily Mail?

In the Daily Mail today there is an attack on the free school meals policy for infants to be introduced in September by the Coalition. Oxfordshire is apparently cited as an area not entirely ready for the new policy and the Conservative Cabinet member is quoted. I thought readers of this blog might like to see the exchange in the Oxford Mail comment column between myself and the Cabinet member over the issue that went out at the end of May.
Should all five- to seven-year-olds get free school dinners?
The decision to offer free school lunches for all pupils in reception and Years 1 and 2 of state funded schools was announced by Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, at the Lib Dem Conference in Glasgow last autumn, and comes into force with the new school year this September, writes John Howson.
The free school meals policy is one I completely agree with.
From September, hard-working families won’t have to spend money on their children’s lunches during term-time.
Parents can save around £500 per child per year of pre-tax income by not having to pay for these meals.
This is money that can now be used for other things. It is being achieved without any bureaucracy or form filling and will especially help parents on zero hour contracts with irregular working weeks.
The new policy also does away with the unfortunate division within schools between free school meal pupils and the rest that accompanied the previous means tested policy in some schools.
Bringing children together at this age at lunchtime can help develop social habits such as eating together as a group. It can also teach the values of sharing, as well as respect for the needs and tastes of others.
Lib Dem policy will now ensure a free meal at midday for most infants. It is a cost-effective policy.
Of course, there are hurdles to overcome.
These include creating the spaces to cook and eat the meals, especially in schools built since the Thatcher era when school meals were regarded by successive governments with disdain.
This is despite the contribution school meals made to the well-being of generations of young children after their introduction by the Liberal government of 1906.
Many schools will receive money to refurbish their buildings, and small rural schools will receive an extra £3,000 each that will help around 80 Oxfordshire schools.
The Pupil Premium money schools receive can still be used for breakfast clubs, where appropriate, and all schools will still need to collect information on eligible pupils that will continue to receive the funding, but, as other authorities have shown, collecting this information presents no real problems.
Nationally, the free school meals policy reverses a mistake of the Thatcher/Blair era, and once again recognises the vital relationship between nutrition, learning, and behaviour in young children.
Melinda Tilley, Conservative Cabinet member for Oxfordshire Children, Education & Families
We all want to see children eating healthily and there’s nothing wrong with promoting school dinners. But while Nick Clegg’s flagship policy may prove popular with parents, I suspect most – or at least a great many – would accept they don’t really need the state to pay for their children’s lunches,
Rather than introducing this universal benefit, the money would be far better spent on ensuring disadvantaged children are getting the help they need to keep up with their classmates. And if it must be spent on providing food, then breakfast clubs would be a better bet, as some children are starting the school day without any breakfast at all, and that has a major impact on their ability to concentrate and learn.
It has been suggested the policy will save parents £400 a year. However, they will also help to fund the scheme along with all other taxpayers – many of whom will rightly ask why, at a time of austerity, the Government is spending their money on a free-lunch scheme for families who can afford to pay and have done so for years.
The policy has also been announced without consultation or apparent consideration of the practicalities involved.
As things stand, many schools don’t have the right kitchen facilities or enough dining space – and some don’t have on-site kitchens at all. That means building work is needed, not to mention extra tables, chairs and cutlery.
The Government has provided around £1.4million in total for non-academy primary schools in Oxfordshire to make the necessary arrangements in time for September. We are working hard to establish the exact requirements of individual schools and what can be achieved in such a short space of time with this very limited funding.
In apparent recognition of these issues, Mr Clegg has now said schools can provide packed lunches instead of hot meals if necessary – which has only served to confuse matters further.
The bottom line is that hot meal or cold, schools have got to make this happen and we are doing what we can to help them.

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2 thoughts on “Sour grapes from Daily Mail?

  1. The issue I have with this policy is that it is suffering severely from the laws of unintended consequences. Leaving aside the issues with schools providing the meals (some considerable), what we have is a policy which will be subsidising middle class families (as low income families already get free school meals) rather than helping the poorest in society. It will have a big impact on schools getting pupil premium funding as this currently uses the number of students that qualify for free school meals; there have been issues getting parents to apply for free school meals in the past – these parents will be even less likely to fill out paperwork if it does not directly lead to a benefit for them.

    Free school meals for all may well be an idea which should be put in place but, due to mainly political reasons, it has been rushed in and consequently will not have the impact hoped for. A phased in approach, perhaps an LEA at a time starting in areas with highest deprivation may have been more sensible

    • Of course if they didn’t apply for FSM in the past, the school didn’t receive the Pupil Premium. There is always a debate about universal versus targeted benefits, and those that benefit can be taxed in other more progressive ways if the net gain to a universal benefit is thought to outweigh the cost. The growth in zero hours contracts is one example of parents who may have variable incomes that will be helped by this policy. Now you could outlaw zero hours contracts and that might have other consequences. Schools are being encouraged to register pupils with the former FSM criteria so that they can obtain the Pupil Premium. Knowing such information also helps in the use of the PP, such as whether or not to run a breakfast club.

      Most policy decisions originate with politicians, and FSMs is no different. Are you really saying that England cannot introduce a nation-wide policy in a year?

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