Even within the Liberal Democrats, not everyone is convinced. The MP for North Devon, Nick Harvey, certainly doesn’t think it’s the right way to spend £1bn and believes his party leader has wasted such a large sum by failing to target the children most in need.
Free school meals, Harvey maintains, have always traditionally been a social policy, with elements of health benefits attached. “The boost to educational attainment was always the icing on the cake,” he says. “The [free school meals pilot] report made the observation that the [academic] results were hardly startling, and if your primary aim was to improve academic attainment, there are plenty of other things you could have done that were better value.”
Yes, it’s Clegg’s TSBSATAAFL* policy again. Proving to be an even worse idea than first thought.
According to research by the thinktank Education Foundation on a range of interventions, he’s right. Oral language interventions, at a cost of up to £170 per pupil per year, boosted educational progress by five months. Peer tutoring, at the same cost, led to a six-month boost. For universal free school meals, the boost was four weeks at Key Stage 1 and eight weeks at KS2 but only if all children in a school got them.
Gosh, politician’s promises heave less shelf life than a curly sandwich produced by the lowest bidder, don’t they?
Ellen Greaves, senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who co-authored the pilot evaluation often cited by Clegg, says the conclusions are not all that exhaustive. “From the pilot evidence, we cannot definitely conclude that attainment will be raised through the universal provision of free school meals to reception, year one and year two children,” she says. “I wouldn’t feel confident that it would raise attainment in all areas of the country.”
And even worse, as we saw before, it’s causing yet more problems:
It’s six months since headteacher Emma Payne opened a new kitchen to provide hot meals for her pupils. The problems of starting up are in the past. But now there are new issues to deal with. Because the meals are free, fewer parents are claiming free school meals, and that is going to cost the school £9,240 in pupil premium.
I’d laugh, if the ‘answer’ weren’t likely to mean yet more money thrown at the inefficient state:
Some school leaders are now saying that a new system must be found to ensure that the most vulnerable children get the pupil premium they are entitled to.
Given that this was a totally foreseeable problem, why has it been left to post-implementation?
If this all sounds a bit hit and miss, that’s because it is. Are schools trying hard enough to get parents to apply? When restaurateur, school governor and School Food Plan co-author Henry Dimbleby tweeted last year that “the trick” to getting parents to claim free school meals was simply “to ask them”, it provoked pained expressions from heads and school business managers who had been trying to do exactly that.
Clearly, the people who have invented this scheme don’t have the first clue what the ‘customers’ of such a scheme are like.
Payne says she “completely gets” why families under strain may not prioritise yet another school admin request with no obvious benefit. Children are, after all, already getting a free lunch, and the premium goes to the school, not the family. “There can also be a question of pride or worries about stigma,” she says.
And there can also be the attitude that hey,’ the government’s feeding my kids, why should I bother to fill in the paperwork?’ too…
Given that local authorities, which administer benefit claims, hold all the information needed to assess families’ FSM entitlement, there is bafflement as to why the system isn’t being simplified. “What makes a lot of the school business managers cross is that this information could perfectly well be collated by government or the local authority, which have the data,” says Metcalfe.
Well, quite! Isn’t the whole point of having such a vast state to make our lives easier?
That’s what they keep telling us, anyway.
A DfE spokesperson said the vast majority of eligible parents still claim free meals, but “we are exploring ideas about the best way to identify disadvantaged pupils automatically in the long term”.
Why didn’t you do this before the scheme launched?
*There Shall Be Such A Thing As A Free Lunch