Blog: Free school meals for all 4 – 7 year olds. What do you think?
I must be a TINY bit cynical because the first thing I thought when Nick Clegg announced free school dinners for infant school children was: ‘Oh, they’re trying to win back the mums’ vote…’
You can just see the coalition chumps sitting around scratching their heads and saying: ‘Crikey, we’ve really annoyed The Mums, what with, er, all our policies that have been really bad for families – quick, what can we do?’
So what have they come up with? Free lunches for children in the first three years of school. This will begin in September next year, and will be worth about £437 per child to families.
That’s a useful sum of money, right? So let’s be fair and balanced about this. Let’s look at why this policy might be a Good Thing.
1. £437 isn’t to be sneezed at. Yes, they might have taken it away with one hand to give it back with the other, but still.
2. Apparently we can’t be trusted to make our children healthy packed lunches. Recent reports suggest only 1% of them meet nutritional standards. Chocolate spread sandwiches and crisps are not very nutritional, it seems. Who knew?
3. Many parents who are eligible for free school meals at present don’t take them up because of the stigma. One in five children who are actually registered for free school meals don’t take it up. Free school meals for all removes the stigma.
4. Fussy children often benefit from school meals – it encourages them to try new foods, particularly if their friends are eating the same thing.
5. A recent report says one in seven children arrive at school hungry. With a free school meal, at least they’re guaranteed something decent to eat every day. A pilot study carried out under the last government found that free school meals had educational benefits as well as nutritional, particularly among children from less affluent families.
So there are some big benefits. But of course it’s not as simple as that. There are also a few reasons why free school meals for everyone might not be such a smashing idea.
1. You may well put a healthy meal in front of a child at lunchtime. They may not necessarily eat it. Here are a couple of conversations I had with my daughter when she started school.
Day One. Me: ‘What did you have for lunch?’
Daughter: ‘Burger and ice cream!’
Day Two. Me: ‘What did you have for lunch?’
Daughter: ‘They had pasta but I didn’t like it.’
Me: ‘So what did you eat?’
Day Three. Me: ‘I think we’ll try a packed lunch today…’
2. That £437 a year is very nice and everything but it’s not actually as much as the child tax credit that we used to be able to claim, but can’t any more. For the squeezed middle, who have seen benefits cut, salaries drop and living costs rise, we might have preferred a bit of extra cash in our pockets and to carry on making packed lunches – which are cheaper than school dinners. Even if you don’t make chocolate spread sandwiches.
3. It’s nice that everyone will get free school meals, but this also means that Prince William’s son will get free school meals too. Well, he would do if he was going to go to a state school, which obviously he isn’t, but you take the point. Lots of people will get this benefit when they don’t actually need it. You might say that’s a bit of a waste of tax-payers’ money. I couldn’t possibly comment.
4. The scheme is going to cost more than £600 million a year. That’s every year. They do say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. To put it in context, that’s more than they saved by introducing the punitive bedroom tax, which harmed so many of those families who could least afford it.
5. Does this mean the end for packed lunches? I get a warm glow of nostalgia preparing my daughter’s packed lunch in a morning, passing on a family tradition of soggy sandwiches, warm juice and slightly squished fruit, all lovingly prepared and packed into a lunchbox bearing the grinning face of the favourite cartoon character of the moment. I can still see the battered old Asterix lunchbox of my childhood. I can still taste the revolting, plastic-y taste of High Juice from a flask. It’ll be sad to see packed lunches go. Or perhaps not…
So what do you think? Is this just a cynical bid to win the votes of Middle England? Or is it a genuine attempt to improve our lives, and those of our children? And will it work?
Guest blog by By Jenny Cornish