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9 reasons the Lib Dems are wrong on school meals

    Reports earlier this year about problems with the Lib Dem policy of providing taxpayer funded school meals for all children aged 5-7 have highlighted further issues with the idea. The policy is due to begin later this year but here are 9 more problems.

    1. Disproportionately benefits children from families with higher incomes.

    Children from the poorest families who are already entitled to free school meals would gain far less than children from richer families not already entitled to free school meals. The average annual saving of £437 would therefore be experienced by even the richest families. This seems neither fair nor efficient.

    2. Could reduce the effectiveness of the pupil premium.

    The pupil premium is £900 of targeted spending given to schools for every child eligible for free school meals and for children with parents in the Armed Forces. Ofsted highlights some problems but generally regard it to have been moderately successful in achieving its aims. However, if meals are provided regardless of income, there is a reduced incentive for some parents to declare their income. There is therefore a possibility that take up of the pupil premium will fall.

    3. Provides no improvement to health, behaviour or attendance.

    The study which provides the key evidence for universalising free school meals actually reports that the policy caused no changes in pupil behaviour, attendance or health. They conclude that the mechanism by which the policy might work is unknown.

    4. Many other factors cause higher attainment.

    The study makes 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 conclude that it is impossible to tell the extent to which taxpayer funded meals actually improved pupil attainment.

    5. Poorest better off because of higher take up of existing entitlements.

    The Lib Dems have claimed that universalising free school meals helps pupils from less affluent families. However, the study suggests that this is because of a higher take up of the free meals to which they were already entitled. The focus should therefore be on better information and more encouragement for eligible families to declare their circumstances rather than a massive extension of the entitlement.

    6. Leads to inefficient duplication of spending.

    The study estimates that in the two trial locations, 32% and 46% of the spending was “deadweight”. This means that 32% and 46% of the spending to universalise the school meals paid for meals that otherwise would have been paid for by parents. Taxing us to spend on things many of us would already have bought is not efficient.

    7. There are other more cost effective ways to increase pupil attainment.

    The paper concludes 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. This is therefore not the best way to spend more than £700 million a year.

    8. Inconsistent with other Government policy.

    We are still spending about £100 billion a year more than we are receiving in tax revenue and there is increasing political consensus that more savings need to be made. The means-testing of benefits to reduce overall expenditure has been one way in which the Government has helped to cut the deficit. Creating a new universal benefit goes against the grain of existing policies and is likely to make future reform more difficult.

    9. Reduces responsibility not the cost of living.

    Some have argued that this policy will help reduce the cost of living. Ultimately this cannot be the case because it just means that taxes on families will need to be higher to pay for it. Wherever possible, we should try to give families the freedom and opportunity to take responsibility and control over their own lives. This policy just makes them that little bit more dependent on the state.

    Adam joined the Centre for Policy Studies as Head of Economic Research in January 2014. 

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