Free School Meals Expansion: A Good Idea?

By Jocelyn Levy | 2nd November 2020 | 11 min read

This month, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party policy of providing Free School Meals (FSMs) for all primary school children gained national attention. It’s the first policy in a while to come from the opposition that has attracted such a large amount of feedback, both positive and negative.

The discussion it provoked is proof that it’s an idea worthy of consideration – nothing else floated by the party has grabbed anything like this amount of attention. But first things first, what exactly is the idea?

Labour has announced, that if it wins the next general election, a key policy will be extending FSMs to all primary school children, rather than just for key stage 1 (reception, year 1 and year 2) students. It would fund this huge increase in FSMs by introducing a new VAT tax on private school fees.

What’s good about the idea?

It’s pretty unanimously agreed that, well fed, healthy students, concentrate better and perform better in lessons. This policy would certainly help ensure more students received that base platform to do well in school. Packed lunches don’t have to meet any governmental standards, whereas school food does, so you can be certain it would improve the overall state of healthy eating in schools.

Of course, FSMs already exist for families who meet certain requirements, but the Children’s Society charity estimated in 2012 there were 1.2 million children living below the poverty line who did not qualify for FSMs. Furthermore, many parents with children who qualify for FSMs, simply don’t apply for them or use them. The Children’s Society put this number as high as 700,000, which means that close to 2 million children in 2012 were living below the poverty line or were eligible for free school meals and yet were not receiving them. Hopefully in 2017 that ratio has improved but there’s no evidence the issue has been significantly addressed.

I’m afraid parental indifference is the cause of that in some cases, but there are also many that refuse to use free school meals out of a matter of pride and the worry of the social stigma they perceive as being attached. It’s certainly not nice for students to be singled out as being poor at lunch time, and it can sometimes lead to teasing and/or bullying.

We try to remove that stigma with our cashless catering system – as it hides whose meal is free or not – but FSMs across the board would simply entirely remove the issue, and ensure the students who most need a nutritional healthy school meal, have no barrier stopping them getting it.

What’s bad about the idea?

The positives of the idea are strong, and – from a political point of view – the idea is simple, easy to communicate, and mainly benefits the middle class; and appealing to that group of voters has never hurt a political party. But what are the issues and problems that have been raised against the idea?

When Emily Thornberry, one of Labour’s Shadow Ministers, justified the idea in a BBC interview, she cited how it would tackle childhood obesity. She said that the poorest children were most likely to be obese and would benefit from the scheme. Many quickly pointed out that the poorest already qualify for FSMs anyway, so the justification was a strange one when the policy would mainly benefit families who can already afford school meals.

Another recurring criticism is that such money could simply be put to better use. Criticism of the idea from Oxfordshire Labour councillor Gill Sanders is a good example. She said:

“Giving free school meals to children who are deserving of a free school meal is effective and vital and something we should continue to do. But I do have concerns that we will be providing meals for parents who can well afford to pay,”

She added:

“I would like any extra money to be spent to allow schools to pay for staff so that they can continue to offer certain subjects.”

We all know how tight budgets in schools are right now, and it’s only predicted to get worse in the coming years. It seems valid to ask if there are other education initiatives that should be prioritised?

Lastly, and most politically, is it right to introduce the tax on private school places? Many would criticise private schools for contributing to the divisions in society between the rich and poor. A tax driven price hike would only make private schools even more the exclusive preserve of the richest in our society.

Is it realistic?

While Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t outright condemn the idea when it was put to her, she did say that a Labour government would ‘Bankrupt Britain’. However, the numbers for this particular policy are fairly solid. The House of Commons Library research estimates that the policy would cost between £700 million and £900 million to implement. The proposed tax on private education is, however, estimated to raise some £1.5 billion, which is more than enough to cover the cost, even if the tax were to force some children out of private education and into the state or academy system.

On a different note, one of the unforeseen consequence of UIFSM was the strain it put on many small schools. For example, many simply didn’t have the capacity to serve free hot meals to all their key stage 1 pupils. That problem would obviously be increased if the FSM policy was extended to even more children. The predicted costs could therefore be much higher than expected if the scheme required more investment into kitchen facilities so that schools could meet the regulation.

And lastly…

The policy would have huge bureaucratic consequences for both schools and government, that would need answering. Take the current method of assessing pupil premium funding using FSMs for example. If all primary school pupils are entitled to FSMs, that measurement becomes irrelevant overnight in those schools, while still remaining valid for secondary education. Labour would not be able to introduce such a policy without addressing all the related funding questions.

But when all is said and done; Labour’s policy announcement has had one good and immediate benefit. It has brought out into the open the debate about the need for children to get a good healthy meal at lunchtime; and how that can have a positive impact on their ability to concentrate and learn.

It’s opened a few eyes into possible inequality and issues with the current system, and at least proposed something that would address the concerns of the potentially millions of children that perhaps should be receiving FSMs today. And we think that’s a good debate to have, and that we have some solutions that can help.