The announcement that all children up to the age of 7 years in England’s primary schools are to receive free lunches has left me in a state of confusion. I am programmed almost as a matter of reflex to react negatively to any announcement from the ConDem government. It’s not something that I have much control over, and seems to me to be as natural as breathing. It is perplexing, therefore, to find myself in a position where actually – all things considered – there’s not very much to be said against the provision of a nutritious, hot meal as part of the overall educational offering to children at the start of their school lives. I could sound all sorts of dire warnings about the apparent lack of any real assessment of the preparedness of schools to cope with the increased demand (in terms of staff, space and cooking facilities); or the dangers of not properly funding the initiative and a consequent return to the barely edible but very cheap offerings of school catering legend, but that would be churlish
So what is it about this announcement that leaves me feeling so uneasy? In essence, it boils down to the fact that this looks like the very worst form of electioneering. If the commentators are correct, then the free school meals commitment has been secured from the Tories in return for LibDem support for a return of some form of married person’s allowance (presumably to be announced as the ‘headline’ initiative at the Tory Conference later in the month). The fact that neither the free school meals announcement nor an increase in tax concessions for married couples, is consistent in any way, shape or form with the overarching policy of the Coalition since its formation, seems to have passed almost unnoticed
To explain. The overarching policy aim of the Coalition has been to return the economy to something approaching fiscal balance in as short a period of time as possible. Deficit reduction has been almost the only lens through which policy formulation has been examined. Consequently, we have seen increasing restrictions on the availability and value of state benefits, the removal of the one remaining Universal Benefit through the taxation of Child Benefit, and real-terms reductions in funding to education, the NHS, legal aid, the environment, the police service, and so on. Whilst the approach has not been without its critics, it has been followed consistently, and whether you agree with it or not, it has at least been ideologically consistent and logical
It’s almost impossible to fit free school meals into this analysis. Yes – the evidence is compelling that children who have a hot meal at lunchtime learn faster and deeper than those who don’t. Equally, however, children need stability and a relatively stress-free environment to learn most effectively, and the impact of the so-called Bedroom Tax will lead to massive upheaval and/or significant additional financial stress to households that will either have to make up the difference in their rent from other (by definition, already stretched) resources, or move to a smaller home altogether
Similarly, what is the logical argument in favour of funding free school meals in the same parliament that has seen the taxation of child benefit (and its effective withdrawal from a significant proportion on middle-earning families). Taken together, the two policies seem almost like the worst form of “Nanny Statism” – we’re not going to give you a Universal benefit that you can decide to spend in the way that seems best for your family; instead we’re going to give your child a hot meal at lunchtime. It seems almost totally opposite to the creed of individual autonomy that has underpinned so much of Tory Party policy for the past forty years
The conclusion has to be therefore, that this is simply an attempt to soften up the electorate ahead of the general election. In this context, it looks like a cynical and rather tawdry attempt to deflect attention from the damage that has been done to so much of civic society under the banner of austerity (library closures, privatisation of large tracts of the NHS, reductions in public support for leisure services etc..). I should feel cheap and abused – and yet, the arguments in favour of free school meals are so overwhelming that I can’t get properly angry about it all!
Damn those politicians!!