Yesterday, the Coalition government announced, with much triumph, that they would be offering free school meals for all P1-3 children in England. The Coalition are falling over each other to claim credit for this policy, with the Conservatives claiming it is all made possible by Michael Gove, and the Lib Dems claiming they got this policy through, "to ensure every child gets the chance in life they deserve" in the words of Nick Clegg.
That's all very well, but who is really going to benefit, and why are the politicians all so impressed with themselves?
The policy will cost £600m, and puts parents in the bizarre situation of being told they are too rich for Child Benefit, which many would have used for school dinners, but now are entitled to free school meals. It's a lot of money to spend on a theory, that school dinners are almost always more nutritious than packed lunches, which has been reported in an independent government review. Independent of the government, but of not of be food industry - two restaurant founders wrote it. It's not even as though this policy will be targeted at those with the greatest need - they already are entitled to free school meals.
Wouldn't it be better if the government instead focused more on these children? They talk about narrowing the attainment gap between rich and poor, while at the same time making life easier for richer parents, and no less hard for poor parents. £600m could have funded a lot of other things.
It could have funded breakfast and homework clubs, where children from poorer backgrounds increase engagement with school and get a nutritious hot meal in the morning and the evening. Instead, it's going straight into the pockets of the food industry (because most local authorities contract out school dinner provision) and providing a state subsidy to more private business, who deliver sub-standard food to a captive audience. The lack of choice is appalling. In theory, the dinners might be more nutritious, but this depends on children picking the nutritious options and actually eating them. I've written about this before, and I'm not hopeful at all.
I don't underestimate how helpful this would be to an average family. It would have saved so much money if we had had free school meals in P1-3, or at least meant I could spend child benefit on something else. However, when housing benefit has been cut so children aren't even allowed their own room, I just don't see how they can justify introducing another universal benefit.
What do you think? Do you really need free school meals? Will you use them?