Labour accused of ‘watering down’ free school meal pledge in York
Prior to the May local elections, Labour campaigned on the promise to provide free school meals for every primary school child in York. A fundraising pot will be set up in November to kick-start the scheme and Westfield Primary Community School will benefit from a trial next year.
But opposition councillors have accused Labour of U-turning on the pledge, as executive member for education said other schools will only get free dinners “as funding allows.”
Education executive Coun Bob Webb said: “We know from recent national research this policy has widespread public support. This specific commitment is to bring partners and individuals together to work on the delivery of this pledge across all York primary schools.
“It is not solely a council pledge, as we’ve said several times, given the council has no money and is amongst the lowest funded in the country. Once the York Fund is set up, the rollout will take place across schools as funding allows.”
It is expected to cost around £3m to fund the programme and Liberal Democrat councillors say pledges may go unfulfilled.
York Liberal Democrat group leader Coun Nigel Ayre said: “In the run-up to the local elections, Labour made an unambiguous promise to deliver free school meals for all primary age children. We are deeply concerned about the widening gaps between that promise and what is now being delivered.
“Labour promised universal coverage, with every primary-age child to receive free school meals. What has been announced is a trial in one school, but Labour promised every area in York would benefit.”
However, Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, believes more funding could come from the development of the North Yorkshire Combined Authority. A mayor covering North Yorkshire and York will be elected next year, which may allow councillors to replicate similar schemes elsewhere.
“Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has developed his ability to raise funding which allows him to offer free school meals across primary schools,” Mr Murison said.
“We haven’t yet had the election for a mayor in York and North Yorkshire so we don’t yet have this source of funding available and the private sector and philanthropy would largely be the ones able to support this laudable initiative. Most of the council’s budget in York is committed to statutory services such as children and adult social care.
“Any initiative to help improve outcomes for children is welcome but other mayoralties such as Liverpool City Region have prioritised place-based initiatives and hyperlocal interventions looking at issues that face disadvantaged children beyond the school gates such as health and housing.
“These targeted interventions may be a better return on investment than universal measures. I expect the mission to improve educational outcomes will be one of the key debate issues in the upcoming mayoral election.”