2 Sep 2014

Free lunches for under-7s – even if parents can afford it

Nick Clegg insists lunch is crucial for children to learn, as his universal free school meals scheme begins. But critics say the money is wasted on families who can afford to pay.

Tuesday lunchtime in schools across England was busier than ever, as universal free school meals for under seven-year-olds became compulsory.

The £1bn initiative, a flagship Liberal Democrat policy, will see nearly 2 million infants being offered a free hot lunch at school every day.

The Lib Dems say it will save families up to £400 a year. But the policy has been hotly contested by those who say that the money is benefiting families who can easily afford to pay for their children’s lunches.

One of the most progressive changes to our school system for a long time Nick Clegg

Headteachers also raised concerns that many of England’s 16,500 primary schools are not equipped to provide so many meals at lunchtime. A poll by the Local Government Association (LGA) earlier this month suggested that some local authorities were facing a shortfall in the funding they need to ensure it can be delivered – just weeks before the policy was rolled out.

Nearly half of those polled (47 per cent) said they had not received enough government money to revamp their kitchens, despite the government putting £150m towards covering the costs of the scheme – on top of the £1bn.

Should all children under seven-years-old be given free school meals? Vote in our Facebook poll below.

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = “//connect.facebook.net/en_GB/all.js#xfbml=1”; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, ‘script’, ‘facebook-jssdk’));
Post by Channel 4 News.

The policy also reportedly divided the coalition, despite former education secretary Michael Gove publicly supporting it.

But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Monday that the scheme was “one of the most progressive changes to our school system for a long time”.

The Children’s Society agreed, and welcome the move, saying ministers should now consider older children.

“The extension of free school meals to all infants in the country is a positive step in the fight against child poverty,” said Chief Executive Matthew Reed. “Our analysis shows that about 160,000 more children in poverty will be getting this vital support as a result of this historic move. It shows that the government recognises the hardship that thousands of families are facing.”

But he added: “For thousands of poor children in junior and secondary schools, nothing has changed. That’s why it is vital that ministers build on this significant opportunity to make sure that every child in poverty is guaranteed a free school meal, whatever their age.”

Lunchtime at Salusbury Primary School, north west London (11 June, 2014)

Photo: lunchtime at Salusbury Primary School, north west London (11 June, 2014)