Free school meals for all primary school students: full marks, Labour.
A good friend of mine asked me today how to respond to criticism fired at Labour following their pledge announced this week to deliver free school meals to all primary school students, regardless of background.
To start with, in 2014, following a report that said free school meals should be offered to all primary school students, the then coalition government partly implemented this recommendation by guaranteeing free school meals for all primary school students up to year two. So before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s important to recognise that Labour’s policy would only extend this privilege to all year groups during their primary school education.
Secondly, the criticism that some kids – whose parents/carers are well off – will unfairly benefit from such a scheme is of course valid. At same time, just because parents/carers may be financially stable, doesn’t mean they are necessarily packing healthy and nutritious lunches for their children. Along with potential health benefits, which research has shown has led to better concentration levels in class, free school meals for all could also help axe the stigma unfortunately attached to them. Some London boroughs piloted such a scheme a few years ago: and the results were largely positive.
Of course, ensuring healthy primary school dinners for all will not be the panacea to addressing the issue of childhood obesity. But to my mind it is certainly a welcome start. I’ve always said Labour have to be bold and radical if they are to have any chance of winning the next general election: and policies of universality should not be easily overlooked.
As for the finances, Labour would fund this by imposing a 20% VAT on private school fees. Interestingly, this was an idea previously mooted by former Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Hardly controversial, when remembering that private schools benefit from charitable status – meaning they, perhaps rather unjustly, get to dodge taxes other institutions offering private services would have to pay.
So to my mind, although it has and will continue to elicit an unsavoury reaction by some at the top, such a tax would be perfectly fair. The revenue it would raise, according to the Fabian Society, would be £1.5 billion per year. That’s significantly more than what free school meals for all primary school students would cost (which is roughly £700-£900 million a year according to research conducted by the House of Commons).
So the numbers add up, and the policy, if implemented, could bring about visible health, social, and educational benefits for young children. Of course, no one is forgetting the chronic lack of staff and resources in schools, primary and secondary, all over the country. Robust methods of tackling these issues must be drawn up in due course. But, this is just one of many ideas that Labour will bring forward on education.
In sum, this week Labour were able to clearly and convincingly set out a bold policy that, on the face of it, seems to chime favourably with the public at large. It is telling to note that Mrs May did not attack it, nor utter one word about it, in her Party’s local election campaign launch speech.
And just this once, the media behaved themselves too.