Now, over the last eighteen months I have become used to the current leadership’s policies, or more commonly the lack of them, being criticised by people I respect in the Party. In fact, usually, I’m in agreement. But for universal free school meals, I find myself making an exception. This is a policy which is costed, thoughtful and will make a real difference to the lives of thousands of children.
Firstly, let’s deal with the main criticism – that education funding is in crisis. School leaders and governors across the country are being forced to make impossible decisions every day. And I wouldn’t dispute that. I couldn’t dispute that. But these are two different arguments. Of course we should be challenging the government to increase school budgets. But we shouldn’t be using money raised from private schools just to plug gaps in state school funding. These monies should only be spent on improving state school standards, not just maintaining current provision. Otherwise, state schools will continue to be the poor relation to their private counterparts.
Then there is the argument that this is money that will be spent on the well off. Well, that’s just not the case. Many of the children currently living in poverty do not currently qualify for FSM. This allows the state to support these children whilst removing the stigma of FSM. More than that, it puts us clearly on the side of the ‘strivers’. Universal free school meals starts the long process of moving us towards being a Party that is seen to be on the side of the ‘squeezed middle’. Millions of parents would be better off. These are the very people that we failed to convince to vote for us in 2015.
There has also been the suggestion that the 20% increase in school fees would prevent parents from sending their children to private schools. We’re not seriously complaining about this are we? More parents having a stake in comprehensive education can only be a good thing. It would bring out the chattering classes and Daily Mail readers; forcing the issue of underfunding of state education into the political mainstream. Making comprehensive standards matter for more children can only mean that comprehensive standards will improve for more children.
Linked to this is the concern that a reduction in children going to private schools would reduce the tax receipts which would threaten the viability of universal free school meals. We’re not going to be scared by that are we? We’re the Party that fought for a minimum wage during a cacophony of claims that it would threaten a million jobs. And we shouldn’t forget the impact that a clear, understandable and measureable policy can have on our reputation. Our Party has a habit, certainly under Ed Miliband, of using the same money more than once. This was one of the reasons that we never recovered our economic credibility in the last Parliament. The universal free school meals policy has clear funding and would make children’s lives better – this is a win.
Then you have the criticism that universal free school meals aren’t bold enough. That it’s too modest to make a difference. To this, I can’t agree. We only have to look at the brilliant impact that family lunches have had at Dixons Trinity Academy and Michaela Free School have had on standards there. According to Luke Sparkes, principal at Dixons Trinity, family lunch offers an opportunity for students to “sit around a dining table with an adult … eat[ing] from the best plates and dishes and drink[ing] from real glasses [where] conversation and manners is modelled by the adult [as] this is a time of day when our children can learn so much”. Universal free school meals would provide a great opportunity for schools to improve behaviour, manners, and much more whilst also serving nutritional, hot meals for all.
It’s hard not to get too excited after the dearth of initiatives of the past eighteen months but it’s clear that universal free school meals is a really solid policy. At our heart, we are a Party that stands up for the many, not the few and we should always stand up for the principle of universalism. We cannot allow our public services to become poor services for poor people. Universal free school meals are not the solution to all the problems facing the state education sector but it’s a start.
Tom Clements is a History and Politics teacher in Yorkshire.