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Universal free school meals are a Lib Dem leftover that need binning

    A version of this article appeared in Nursery World magazine.

    ‘Universal free school meals’ is one of those evocative policy ideas that well-intentioned do-gooders insist is vital in improving the attainment of young pupils. The reaction to their proposed withdrawal is reminiscent of the early 1970s when then-education secretary Margaret Thatcher sparked outrage with her decision to withdraw free school milk to make public spending savings.

    The truth is that universal ‘free’ meals were actually an expensive gimmick – costing the taxpaying-public about £700m – designed to give Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats some political cover for the tough but necessary decisions they had taken as part of the coalition government. Dominic Cummings, a former advisor to Michael Gove who worked closely with him at the Department of Education, derided the policy as “dumb” and claimed staff in the department were almost ‘unanimously opposed’.

    Post-election, with a Conservative majority and the implosion of their junior partner, it is quite right that the government drop the politicking and use the upcoming spending review to look again at the issue from an economic point of view.

    Children from the poorest families clearly should receive the benefits of a healthy school lunch that their parents may be unable to afford. This policy was already in place prior to the 2013 announcement by the then-Deputy Prime Minister. The extension of free school meals to every child between the age of four and seven was therefore a subsidy to middle class and well off parents.

    As one economist wrote at the time of the announcement:

    This is yet further evidence, if evidence were needed, that the state is not just a safety net for the poorest, but has become a vehicle for gimmicks and middle-class welfare in the name of fairness. It will now be irreversible, with pressure groups running hysterical campaigns against its abolition.

    Cummings was also correct in his assertion that many schools were not prepared to cope with the extra workload and it would lead to chaos. Initial plans to provide hot meals were dropped in favour of a ‘nutritious’ meal because many small schools did not have the kitchens to cook hundreds of meals a day, or time to upgrade them.

    Proponents of the policy may protest that the long-term health and attainment benefits may outweigh the immediate costs but there is little definitive evidence. The Department of Education impact report on the pilot scheme (which provided the key evidence for the policy) actually reported it resulted in no changes in pupil behaviour, attendance or health.

    The study made clear that alongside the universal school meals during the trials there were activities to promote the take up of the meals, school food tasting sessions, and strict packed lunch policies. They concluded it is impossible to tell the extent to which taxpayer funded meals in isolation actually improved pupil attainment. The study also suggested much of the benefit may have come from the poorest students taking up the free meals to which they were already entitled. In practice this has resulted in the policy actually hurting the poorest children, with schools receiving less money from the pupil premium as a result of fewer parents signing up for the existing free school meals programme. The focus should have been on better information and more encouragement for eligible families to declare their circumstances rather than a huge extension of the entitlement.

    The study estimated that in the two pilot locations, 32% and 46% of the spending was “deadweight”. This means that 32% and 46% of the spending is to universalise the school meals that otherwise would have been paid for by parents. Taxing the public to spend on things they would already have purchased is not efficient. It even goes on to say that other measures such as Jamie Oliver’s “Feed Me Better” campaign were able to gain similar increases in attainment for a substantially lower cost. Despite regular calls for ‘evidenced-based policy making’, the case for the universal extension was always based on a spurious reading of the impact report.

    Finally, the government is still forecast to spend around £70 billion a year more than they receive in tax revenue in 2016, and there is political consensus that this situation is unsustainable. The means-testing of benefits to reduce overall expenditure has been one processes which has helped to cut this deficit. The creation of a new universal benefit went against the grain of these money-saving policies. Creating a strong economic foundation for the country is more important to the future of children than lavish policies that sound good and were ultimately implemented to win a few votes. 

    Lewis joined the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2011 with responsibility for social media and digital engagement.

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