Free school meals may make children healthier, but could the money be better spent elsewhere, asks Dani Garavelli
EVER since Jamie Oliver declared war on the Turkey Twizzler, providing healthy school lunches and coaxing more children to eat them have been high up the political agenda. Much money and effort has been expended on improving the nutritional content of the meals on offer and on teaching children to make better choices. Yet, almost ten years after Oliver’s Feed Me Better campaign, fewer than 55 per cent of Scotland’s primary pupils opt for school lunches, the others preferring sandwiches, or even, where allowed, a trip to the newsagents for crisps and chocolate. Even among those entitled to free school lunches, the take-up is only 84 per cent, with 40,000 of the country’s poorest children missing out.
Set this shortfall against a backdrop of reduced economic circumstances, increased food bank use and suggestions from teachers that pupils are often too hungry to concentrate, and you can see why the idea of introducing free school meals for all younger children is appealing. Remove the stigma and the means-testing and you will help families caught in the poverty trap and ensure every child in the country eats at least one good meal a day.
Last year, the Westminster government announced it was introducing free school meals for children under eight in England and Wales at a cost of £600 million a year. And last week the SNP pledged to follow suit, using money released through the Barnett consequentials (the mechanism by which increased public spending in England and Wales triggers extra money for Scotland and Northern Ireland) to fund the initiative which will cost £13m per year and save families £330 per child per year.
The move has been welcomed by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, Children 1st, The Church of Scotland and the Educational Institute of Scotland, all of whom had been putting pressure on the Scottish Government to act. “A universal approach to healthy free school lunches provides a huge boost to children and parents at a time when they are under increasing pressure from tax credit and benefit cuts, soaring food and energy prices and stagnating wages,” says John Dickie, head of CPAG in Scotland.
But the measure has not been universally lauded. Although the Scottish Labour Party claimed only to have opposed the SNP motion on its £114m childcare package (which includes 600 hours a year childcare for more than a quarter of Scotland’s two-year-olds) because it had been linked to independence, leader Johann Lamont said that as someone who had taught some of the county’s most deprived children, she did not regard universal free school dinners as a priority.
Some critics have challenged the fairness of a measure which subsidises parents who can afford to put smoked salmon on their children’s sandwiches at a time of savage cuts. “It’s a waste of money to give people in Morningside or Merchiston or Kelvinside free meals for their kids,” says political strategist and commentator John McTernan, who was political secretary to Tony Blair when he was prime minister. “It’s a fundamental principle of the welfare state that when you’re trying to alleviate poverty you target the money to the people who need it the most.”
Others see the move as yet another example of state interventionism. “I was talking to a friend of mine about this,” says mother-of-two Ciara MacLaverty, who has made packed lunches for her son, Hugh, ever since he started school. “We are both stay-at-home mothers and feel society has gone the way of factory-farming children, what with wrap-round care from 8am-6pm and other similar proposals. Letting the council feed your child is just one more way of abdicating responsibility.”
More broadly, the issue of school meals has put the spotlight on universalism, the principle whereby certain benefits and services are provided across the board regardless of income. At Westminster, there has been a move away from universal provision with child benefit scrapped for families where one partner earns in excess of £60,000, and the introduction of university tuition fees in England. But the Scottish Government has embraced it, introducing free personal care and free prescriptions, which has led some to question where all the money is going to come from.
Last year, Lamont appeared to criticise the increase in free services (combined with the council tax freeze), referring to the country’s “something for nothing” culture. Tasked with reviewing Labour’s stance on paying for public services, finance expert Professor Arthur Midwinter said the SNP’s funding of free prescriptions, free university tuition and the council tax freeze were leading to thousands of job losses a year in Scotland’s public sector by starving it of cash. Yet many people who complain about wealthy pensioners getting a free bus pass and winter fuel allowance see free school meals as a special case: an investment which will reap far-reaching social and economic benefits.
So should we welcome the SNP’s initiative on the grounds that it will help produce a generation of healthy, focused learners? Or would the money be better spent on extending nursery provision even further so more mothers can return to work, or providing extra educational support for working-class children?
Anti-poverty groups have been campaigning for universal free school meals for a long time, but their case has been strengthened recently by the rising numbers of young families who have fallen below the poverty line, an increase in the number of children hospitalised with malnutrition and a handful of neglect cases in England in which children have starved to death, including that of Daniel Pelka who had been reduced to stealing food from other children’s packed lunches.
Although in Scotland free school meals are already available to families where parents are in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance, Income Support or child tax credit (depending on earnings), campaigners believe many with low or erratic incomes fall through the net. In addition, though 19 per cent of Scottish children are eligible and registered for school free meals, only 14.4 per cent receive them.
When pilot schemes involving free school meals for all primary school children were carried out in Durham and Newham from 2009-11, the number of pupils taking school dinners rose (by 22 percentage points in Newham and 35 percentage points in Durham). Although the increase in take-up was greatest among those who were being offered free school meals for the first time, there was also an increase among those who were already eligible. In both Durham and Newham, diets improved and there was an increase in attainment, particularly among less affluent pupils.
In a Scottish pilot scheme in 2007-08, which involved all P1-P3 pupils in five local authority areas receiving free meals, take-up rose from 53 per cent to 75 per cent overall and by 4.4 percentage points among those already eligible.
For Dickie, these results demonstrate the potential impact the initiative could have on the country’s pupils. “There’s clear evidence there that a universal approach to free school meals has a knock-on effect in terms of children’s learning and education,” he says. “It will help families who are below or just above the poverty line. But issues of healthy eating and the consequences of poor diet affect children across the social spectrum so there are also benefits for the whole of society.”
Sceptics, of course, point out the long-term health benefits depend on the nutritional content of the food provided, the willingness of the children to eat what’s put before them and whether or not it’s possible to engender a habit of healthy eating that endures beyond the age of seven and particularly into secondary where most pupils choose to eat at the local chippy.
At home in Glasgow, MacLaverty accepts the policy is well-intentioned, but would prefer to exercise a degree of control over what her son eats. “I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of the opportunity to have a school dinner,” she says. “But Hugh is a fussy eater and I know if he had school lunches, he would pick pizza or sausages or a hot dog in a white roll. At least if I make him a packed lunch I can give him wholemeal bread and some sliced apple or pear.”
Others insist a similar increase in attainment might just as easily be achieved if money was spent on other aspects of education which didn’t result in affluent families effectively receiving a hand-out.
The prospect of wealthy children being fed by the state sticks in the craw of many and feeds into a wider debate on universal provision. Of course, no-one is suggesting all services should be means-tested; if they were, we would have to ditch the NHS. But there are those, such as McTernan, who believe SNP measures such as free prescriptions are creating “a middle-class welfare system” we can ill afford.
This is not a view shared by Paul Spicker, professor of public policy at Robert Gordon University. In 2012, he co-authored a report for the Jimmy Reid Foundation that concluded continued universalism was vital for Scotland’s prosperity. The problem with means-testing, Spicker says, is not only that it stigmatises, but also that it is impossible to create a system sophisticated enough to cope with people’s fluctuating economic circumstances. “It’s incredibly difficult to work out who ought to have the attention and when they ought to have it. Lots of people are in low-paid work, which is often temporary, or casual or seasonal, and you get people’s incomes doubling or halving within a period of a few months.”
It is easier and fairer, he maintains, for as many benefits and services as possible to be paid from taxes, which are, in effect, one big means test. Spicker also points out that, contrary to popular perception, the welfare state is not an increasingly heavy burden on society, with 3.1 per cent of GDP being spent on benefits for people of working age in 2013-14 compared to 3.4 per cent in 1983-84.
McTernan insists current arguments over universalism are spurious. “There’s not a single person in the country who believes everyone should get a housing allowance, no-one believes everyone should get tax credits – everyone believes those benefits should be means-tested because that’s the way you focus the most help to those in the most need. The state pension is universal and that’s correct. But anti-poverty measures have always been targeted at those who need them most.”
He says a free university education should be means-tested with the money saved invested in ensuring more working-class children get the chance to study there. “My position is the genuinely left-wing one because it involves the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor,” he says. As the wrangling goes on, those who have pushed for universal free school meals are hoping Scotland’s youngest pupils – rich and poor – will take the opportunity to eat a hot meal with their friends so the nutritional playing field can be levelled and the socio-economic gap that often manifests itself in a hot meals/packed lunches apartheid narrowed.
“Removing the means test allows us to ensure all our children, whatever their home circumstances, are getting at least one healthy meal a day,” says Dickie. “It relieves pressure on family budgets, which is really important at the moment, but it also ensures all our children are getting the most out of the education system.”