Universal free school meals are an excellent idea; pilot schemes in the UK and tested policies in other countries have shown that the provision of a hot lunch for all significantly improves the educational chances of poorer children.
That’s nice, but they ain’t free.
The problem, however, with Clegg’s meal deal is …
That they ain’t free..?
… that it is not in fact universal; it is offered only to children in their first three years of schooling.
*sighs* Of course. It’s that they don’t go far enough…
Clegg’s pledge is undoubtedly a vote-catcher, encapsulating the Lib Dem position on social policy; it helps the poor, but throws in a sweetener (approximately £500 a year per child) for the more affluent. In light of restricted and, it now seems, uncertain funding, I’d rather feed poorer children for longer than subsidise all families for a limited period.
I’d rather not do either!
And lest we think this is just a case of the progressives being generous with our money, there’s an ulterior mortive:
As it stands, four out of 10 children in poverty do not receive the subsidy, either because they are ineligible (not quite poor enough to meet current criteria) or because they do not take up the benefit. Under-registration is a problem not just for families in need, but for schools who use free school meals as the metric for calculating the pupil premium, a top-up educational services fund targeted at children from low-income households.
Extra povvy kiddies in the school means extra cash for the school! With incentives like these, it’s no wonder ‘the poor will always be with us’, isn’t it?
Social stigma is perceived as a major factor in under-registration. With a properly thought-through system this should not be an insurmountable problem.
Cashless payment systems and confidential management can help. More radically, school dinners could be made mandatory and free, with costs claimed back, through taxation, from more affluent parents (if tax breaks for private education can be administered, I don’t see why this would be any more unwieldy).
Yes! Let the State (i.e. me) feed everyone’s kids! In fact, force-feed everyone’s kids. What could go wrong?
The adequate nourishment of our poorest children is an urgent and complicated challenge.
Yes. And it’s one for their parents.