Row over free school meal plans

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DEPUTY Prime Minister Nick Clegg had been warned that his plan to give free school meals to every five to seven-year-old was a “bad idea” based on “junk” figures, a former special adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove has claimed.

Dominic Cummings, who served as one of Mr Gove’s most senior advisers until the end of last year, claimed that the Department for Education (DfE) had refused to take up the idea, but Mr Clegg did a deal with Prime Minister David Cameron to be able to announce the policy at last autumn’s Liberal Democrat conference, giving education officials virtually no warning of his plans.

But his claims were dismissed as “complete and utter b***s” by Lib Dem Schools Minister David Laws, who insisted that the scheme – which comes into operation in English primary schools from September – had been several years in the preparation and will be delivered successfully.

Some head teachers have warned that the policy will cause difficulties in schools which do not currently have the kitchen and dining facilities to feed all of their eligible pupils during the lunch hour.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “The idea of free school meals for infant children is a good one but it clearly has huge implications for school kitchens and timetables.

“Schools are extremely busy at the moment with a new curriculum and are understandably nervous about their ability to get this right in time. Not all of them will be able to do so. Many simply lack the facilities to cook hot meals.”

The Conservative chairman of the House of Commons Education Committee and Beverley and Holderness MP, Graham Stuart, said the start date should be put back in order to give time for proper consideration and implementation, adding: “It does show the dangers of Nick Clegg pitching into education policy without being aware of the realities in schools.”

Around £150m of public money is being made available to help 
infant schools improve their dining facilities, while £450m has been set aside in 2014/15 and £635m in 2015/16 to fund the free lunches.

Announcing the scheme at the Lib Dem conference in September, the Deputy Prime Minister said the initiative would save struggling families £437 for each child per year, as well as having educational and health benefits.

In an email exchange with BBC Radio 4’s World At One, Mr Cummings suggested that Mr Clegg sought a trade-off with Mr Cameron, under which he would be able to make the announcement of the free meal plan a centrepiece of his party gathering while the Prime Minister would announce tax breaks for married couples at the Conservative conference a couple of weeks later.

In the emails, which World At One staff said they were reading out with Mr Cummings’ permission, the ex-special adviser said: “Clegg’s team tried to persuade us to do it in 2013. We refused, so Clegg said to Cameron in secret before party conferences ‘You give me this and I’ll give you your marriage tax announcement for Tory conference. Gove refuses to do it, so you’ll have to force him’.

“The DfE wasn’t told until about an hour or so before the announcement. No policy work was done in advance.”

However Mr Laws said that Mr Cummings’s comments reflected the former special adviser’s personal views. He added: “The DfE was not opposed to this policy. It was the result of pilots undertaken since 2009 and a school food review chaired by people independent of the department.”