OPINION - Free school meals extended to all primary school pupils in London

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

Sadiq Khan has announced plans to extend free school meals to every primary school child in London for one year. The £130m scheme will support 270,000 pupils not currently in receipt of the programme, of whom an estimated 100,000 live in poverty.

The move will save families in the capital around £440 per child across the year, and will be funded by higher than expected business rates revenues.

As our Campaigns Editor David Cohen notes, the policy represents a major victory for the Standard’s School Hunger Special Investigation, which highlighted the plight of the 210,000 primary and secondary pupils in London who live in homes on universal credit but miss out on free school meals.

Alright, so let’s talk value for money. Is a universal benefit such as this the most cost-effect way to spend £130m? There are families who will benefit from this policy who can afford to pay for school lunches, in the same way that not all older people need the winter fuel allowance. That’s the criticism made today by former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke.

Conversely, there are ideological arguments that universalism is itself good, as it creates a broader base of support for the welfare state, even if (or rather because) better-off people sometimes benefit too.

Specifically on free school meals, we do have some studies on its efficacy. One report from the Department for Education a decade ago evaluated a free school meals pilot from three local authorities in England between autumn 2009 and summer 2011. It found that the extension had a “significant positive impact on attainment...  with pupils in the pilot areas making between four and eight weeks’ more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas.”

The report also found that improvements tended to be “strongest amongst pupils from less affluent families and amongst those with lower prior attainment.” And that this was attributed to higher productivity while at school.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, which contributed to the paper, called the attainment boost “meaningful” but acknowledged that the costs of the policy are substantial, and suggested that alternative programmes such as breakfast clubs can “deliver similar gains at much lower cost“.

And that’s the point. The government (which, to be clear, is not funding today’s announcement) could do lots of things instead. It could for example raise the pitifully low threshold at which pupils stop being eligible for free school meals. At present, there are 800,000 children in England who live in households on universal credit but are ineligible because their household income, excluding benefits, is greater than £7,400 a year.

Having said all that, if you’re a child – or the parent of a child – struggling to afford a school meal, you probably don’t care about esoteric discussions around universalism. Eating keeps people alive and helps students to do better at school. That is a sound starting point for any policy.

Elsewhere in the paper, who is in the running to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and first minister? Check out our backgrounders on two frontrunners, finance minister Kate Forbes and health minister Humza Yousaf.

In the comment pages, Rob Rinder says that private healthcare spared his agony — he just wishes the NHS was as good. Rob also declares an intention to marry his friend, Vanessa Feltz. While Melanie McDonagh suggests the worse thing about the Roald Dahl changes is that authors and publishers now internalise censorship before they even get to the sensitivity readers.

And finally, save your pennies but still have a great night out with our picks of London’s best free (and cheap) comedy events.

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