Why Labour must commit to Free School Meals for all – Louise Atkinson, NEU

“If free school meals are being introduced in Scotland and Wales, why is it not possible for England too? Labour has a big opportunity to step in and fill this gap.”

By Louise Atkinson, President of the National Education Union (NEU)

Zarah Sultana’s Bill to introduce free school meals for all primary school children has taken the argument about provision of this important need into Parliament. And as that discussion has unfolded another debate has also opened up – in Labour. It is essential to press the Tory government, but we now need Labour to commit to a policy of free school meals for all primary school children.

Support for the proposal that free school meals should become a Labour party manifesto commitment now has a head of steam. Wales and Scotland are already rolling out free school meals for all primary schools. Indeed, in Scotland there is a debate about whether to expand free school meals to older pupils. Some Labour authorities in England have introduced free school meals schemes. At the start of this year the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a £130m emergency scheme to introduce free school meals in London primary schools for the academic year 2023/24.

The London wide scheme significantly adds to the case for one standard for all. It begs the question, if free school meals are being introduced in Scotland and Wales, why is it not possible for England too? Labour has a big opportunity to step in and fill this gap.

In April the Guardian reported that Labour is facing “mounting calls to extend free school meals to every child in England if Labour makes it into power,” pointing to the fact that the National Education Union has made a formal submission to Labour’s policy consultation asking the party to adopt it as policy. The NEU’s submission is significant. The NEU is the largest education union in Europe. As I wrote for Labourlist last week, “the National Education Union is not affiliated to any party: we aim to influence all parties to move education in a progressive direction. While we have a very clear focus on pressing the government, we are also taking our case to the opposition.

The Guardian’s report states that a number of Constituency Labour Parties have made calls for free school meals for all into the National Policy Forum policy consultation. And we know that the proposition has an extremely wide base of support, including from the Mirror, the TUC, the BMA, the Child Poverty Action Group, Labour mayors such as Andy Burnham, Jamie Driscoll, Tracy Brabin and Steve Rotheram, and support in Parliament from Labour, Green and LibDem MPs.

As the case advances so it is necessary to be aware of counter-arguments. Following the Guardian’s report on the NEU submission to Labour’s policy review, Labourlist reported that “some experts are dubious on the real-terms benefits of a blanket provision, stressing instead things like the need for automatic enrolment for children eligible.”

The NEU is one of those organisations that supports automatic enrollment as an improvement to the present scheme but recognises that this proposal simply does not anywhere address the fundamental situation that requires the more far-reaching need for free school meals for all.

Free school meals are a way of ensuring that all children receive a nutritious, hot meal every day – and that helps children to focus on their learning and attainment.  But it is not widely understood just how hard it is to qualify for free school meals. At present, the Universal Infant Free School Meal scheme (UIFSM) means all children receive Free School Meals until the end of year 2. After that, in England, only children who meet certain criteria qualify. Children are means-tested by household, regardless of the number of children in the family, and a child is only eligible if their household received £7,400 per year or less. Means-testing leaves many low-income pupils ineligible for Free School Meals, and the low eligibility threshold means that too many children miss out on free school meals.

Research suggests that equal provision for all is the best way to ensure that no child goes hungry and would yield greater benefits to the poorest children than expanding eligibility.

The health, educational and economic benefits are clear.

Impact on Urban Health recently commissioned PwC to undertake an assessment of the costs and benefits of expanding free school meal provision in England. It should be noted that this explored the wider policy of free school meals for all state school pupils – including secondary school pupils – so the cost figures are higher than for primary schools. Nonetheless, the benefits were striking. Every £1 invested in this scenario is estimated to generate £1.71 in the core benefits. PwC found that free school meals for all would deliver a stronger cost-benefit outcome than an alternative expansion of free school meal provision to all state school pupils receiving Universal Credit. Under that scenario that for every £1 invested, an estimated £1.38 would be generated in the core benefits.

The evidence suggests that providing free school meals results in improved ability to learn, improved educational attainment in the medium term, leading to improved productivity and employment in the medium-to-longer term; and suggests a link between improved productivity and employment, contributing to improved lifetime earnings and wider contributions in the longer term. And the benefits include savings to the NHS savings – such as because of reduced childhood obesity – and savings on food costs for families.

If the benefits are clear enough, that still leaves the cost. It has been estimated that rolling out Free School Meals to all children in primary school would cost £880 million. This would be an investment in our children’s futures and a small price to pay for an incoming Labour government. Keir Starmer has said the focus should be on how to break down barriers to opportunity across the country. If we continue to have children arriving at school hungry we know that barriers to opportunity will remain. The fact that two nations of the UK and the most populous region of England are pursuing exactly this policy framework demonstrates that this is primarily a question of political will.

From Finland to Sweden to India, many countries already provide Free School Meals to every child in primary. It’s tried and tested. Time and time again, a guaranteed nutritious dinner at school improves children’s health and helps them learn. It is the perfect dividing line for Labour going into the election: a policy that the Tories won’t deliver, already being implemented in some parts of the UK, and one with demonstrable education, health and economic benefits.

Labour party policy commission members should be seeking to add free school meals for all into Labour’s programme, and the full National Policy Forum this summer is a clear opportunity to unite around this proposal. Constituency parties will soon have the opportunity to submit resolutions to conference in support.

The next Labour government must deliver, within its first term in office, universal free school meals for all primary school children.

  • Louise Atkinson is the President of the National Education Union (NEU), you can follow her on twitter here.
  • You can find out more and support the ongoing NEU campaigns for Free School Meals on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Featured image: Striking teachers and NEU supporters demonstrate in central London on May 2nd, 2023. Photo credit: Louise Atkinson/Twitter

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