Jayne Dowle: Hunger games in political feeding frenzy over schools

Should school meals be free  - or not?
Should school meals be free - or not?
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THE Conservatives have decided to scrap free school meals. Well actually, they haven’t. The Conservatives have decided to scrap free school meals for pupils in the first three years of primary education, a cohort still quaintly known as “infants”. It is a crucial point, but it’s being missed.

Unfortunately for Theresa May, the words “scrap”, “school” and “meals” in the same sentence tends to send people into moral outrage. She should know this; Margaret Thatcher was still derided as “the milk snatcher” years after she spearheaded her radical cost-cutting measures regarding the provision of free school milk when Education Secretary in Edward Heath’s government.

What the Conservative manifesto technically says is that the policy on Universal Infant Free School Meals will come to an end if the party is re-elected. This is not the free school meals which children growing up in poverty are still entitled to if their parents are on benefits or earn less than around £16,000 a year.

Surely you remember all the fuss? Universal Infant Free School Meals was introduced in 2014. Its greatest cheerleader was Nick Clegg, then the deputy Prime Minister, who launched a war on unhealthy packed lunches.

In those heady days, a report was commissioned from the founders of the fashionable Leon chain of restaurants who recommended free school meals for all pupils up to the age of 11.

The report argued that this would raise academic standards. Children familiar with congealed gravy and gristly meat might disagree. Parents might concur. What really raises academic standards are committed teachers in well-funded and efficiently-run schools.

The free-for-all idea was scaled back due to costs. If you ask me – as a parent – offering free dinners always seemed rather more political than helpful. It provided the coalition Government with some semblance of a caring reputation, especially as Michael Gove was running rampant with his unpopular curriculum reforms.

It purported to help “hard-working” families on low incomes with their weekly costs. And it was also sold as a way to encourage parents, mothers in particular, back to work. What it actually did was give everybody false hope. Children are at school way past their “infant” years. Where was the provision for older pupils?

Presumably, mothers were expected to rush back to the workplace in their millions, content in the knowledge that their four-year-old was receiving a hot meal in the middle of the day. And by the time that child was seven or eight, they would be doing so well in their new career that they would be able to pay for school meals for all the class.

As far as I am aware, this has never happened. However, I’ll stick my neck out and say that this manifesto idea to offer free breakfasts to every child in primary school, instead of free dinners to just a few, is a step in the right direction.

For a start, it encourages families to bring their children to school on time. And it not only prepares pupils with a rocket boost for the day of learning ahead, it gives their parents a helping hand.

Countless children in the UK routinely skip breakfast. Too many lose out because their parents are either too poor or too disorganised to provide it. If every child under the age of 11 could be guaranteed toast or cereal to start their day, I think we could seriously call ourselves a civilised society.

The manifesto is coy about what time this school breakfast would be offered. It stands to reason that if the policy comes to pass the school day will have to start earlier. This will lead to inevitable ructions amongst teaching and catering staff whose hours will have to change.

However, it should also encourage non-working parents to consider taking a job because they should be up and out of the house at a good hour in the morning.

If you follow this line of reasoning, the mask of caring Conservatism quickly slips to reveal its true colours of social engineering. If Mrs May’s team really wants to prove it cares, they need to go beyond breakfast.

The manifesto has missed the chance to address food poverty overall. What needs some serious attention is the fact that deprived children who receive free school meals are often forced to go hungry in the school holidays because their parents can’t even find the funds to buy crisps, never mind decent meals.

And what about secondary school pupils? Politicians put so much store by their performance and exam results, yet forget that they need feeding. My towering son is almost 15 and eats more than I do. Yet I have still to hear a single political candidate address the issue of how parents are expected to support hungry teenagers.

It costs me at least £10 a week for Jack’s school lunches. A wrap or sandwich, plus a drink, is around £2. And in September, his sister will be joining him in Year Seven. That makes £80 a month. The politician who comes up with some sensible suggestions on how to make this more affordable will get my vote.