In today’s article, Ellie Clarke gives her take on Labour’s recent announcement that it will provide Free School Meals for all primary school children.
Last week I switched on the news, and once again the Labour party was in the headlines. This time however, I’m glad to say, it wasn’t anything to do with Ken Livingstone, or some disastrous new polling figures. It was to announce one of Labour’s new flagship policies: Free school meals for all primary school children.
Now this really excited me, but not as much as when I heard how it was going to be paid for. The money is going to come from introducing VAT on private schools, which I personally think is a fantastic idea. It appeals to my socialist principles of taxing the very rich to help provide a social good for everyone. And free school meals for primary children really is a social good. Research from the National Centre for Social Research and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that offering free school meals to everyone improves pupils’ performance, allowing them to advance by around two months on average. This shows just how important it is that every child can have a decent meal. Although those in financial need do already have access to free lunches, the stigma around it (for both pupils and parents) means take-up isn’t nearly as good as it should be, and many children don’t get the help they are entitled to. Making it available to all will end this stigma.
Some people are not keen on this universal approach though, saying it is subsidy for middle class children who can easily afford these meals. But to those people I say you are missing the point. It is available to all, because that is how it should be. I believe that vital things in our society such as health care, public services, and decent meals for children should be available to everyone, free at the point of use/consumption. Trying to means test it makes the system more complicated (and often more expensive), and means that some who really are in need are bound to miss out. Regardless of the fact that school meals are often healthier and more nutritious than packed lunches, if this new policy means that just one less child has to go hungry, then that to me makes it all worth it.
The other argument I have come across is that it is not just the super rich that go to private school, and that many hardworking families will now struggle. 80% of families that send their children to private school have a household income of more than £50,000 per year. And you’ll forgive me if I don’t get too upset about the remaining 20%. If they can no longer afford to go private, and decide to send their children to a state school instead, then good. I believe that’s a better place for them to be. And at least, if they’re of primary age, they’ll be guaranteed a decent, free lunch.