The UN is right: austerity has laid waste to Britain. Look at our schools

Barbara Ellen
School lunch may be the only sit-down meal some children get. Photograph posed by model. Photograph: OwenPrice/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The UN poverty envoy has just been in Britain on a fact-finding mission, and reported on “mean-spirited and often callous” austerity policies, noting how levels of child poverty are “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”. It’s no real surprise then to find schools on the frontline, starting with the food they are able to provide.

While primary schools have provided free lunches to pupils since 2014, school meals have been hit by funding problems and increased food prices. The Soil Association reports that school caterers in England are facing price hikes as high as 20% for fresh fruit and vegetables, and 14% for eggs. Which has led to many schools opting to provide cold food only, and this can include cheaper meat, biscuits and custard puddings.

Suddenly, it seems an awfully long time ago that Jamie Oliver was ripped to shreds for trying to encourage schools to feed children healthy food. While food snobbery can sometimes be inappropriate – cash-strapped schools generally do their best – clearly this is a government funding issue, and a major one.

Effectively, the government has forced schools to cut back on child nutrition

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a cold lunch, so long as it’s balanced, but is that what’s going on here? Is nothing but “cold food” acceptable for children, especially during the winter months? Research has shown that school lunch is the only sit-down meal that some children get, and that there’s a direct link between inadequate nutrition and low concentration levels. How that going to be helped by custard puddings and digestive biscuits?

Effectively, the government has forced schools to cut back on child nutrition, which is a particular disaster for poorer pupils, who may rely on it. All of which further undermines any fond lofty visions of schools as egalitarian havens that prepare children for the outside world, while protecting them from the pressures. What a crock.

You often see schools trying to protect their pupils. A Birkenhead headteacher has just banned designer coats in an attempt to “poverty-proof” her school, promote fairness and stop bullying. However, as school lunches prove, the real world (and its inadequate funding) does have a nasty habit of barging in.

Even today, people refer to former education secretary Margaret Thatcher’s decision to “snatch” schoolchildren’s free milk in 1971 and note it as a turning point (in terms of political ruthlessness). Yet similar things are still happening, just a tad more subtly, and under cover of legislation, usually in the form of cuts making it impossible for schools to make decisions in children’s best interests, and leading to such developments as… only cold food on offer at lunch.

What did the UN report say? “Mean-spirited”? “Callous”? How about another apposite word – cold?

• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist