Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who backed free school meals when it was a Lib Dem policy in 2014 (Andy Butterton/PA Archive/PA Images)
It's perverse that universal free school meals even need defending on the terms of their economic viability and academic benefit, but our miserable political discourse demands we must.
On Thursday, Labour announced they would introduce free school meals for all primary school pupils, paid for by introducing VAT to private school fees. You might have instinctively come to the rash conclusion that ensuring all children are fed was "a good thing". Thankfully, we now have wonderful things like cold hard data, metrics for success plundered from bestselling books on marketing, subreddits called R/ObjectivelyCorrectDevilsAdvocates and comment journalism, so we're not simply going to accept that safeguarding infants' sustenance is a worthwhile policy without the sufficient evidence.
Jane Merrick complains that ending the tax break bafflingly afforded to private schools would penalise the parents "breaking the bank" to afford fees, forcing them to send them their kids to, ugh, state school. Mary Ann Sieghart laments the fact that free school meals have been used to benchmark the progress of the poorest through the education system and this would effectively nullify that dataset, because it would be a shame to sacrifice great A-B data at the expense of something paltry, like feeding kids.
The more craven sections of the press have attacked the concept of nourished kids as some deluded Looneeleft fantasy, typical of Corbyn's Labour. However, as Labour's Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner readily admits, the policy is no innovation of their own, rather one adopted almost wholesale from the unlikely source of Michael Gove. In a rare achievement of note while in coalition, the Liberal Democrats were able to introduce universal free school meals for the first three years of a child's education (roughly up to the age of seven) in 2014. In 2015, the SNP introduced a nearly identikit policy in Scotland.
How much of the current opprobrium directed at the policy is as a result of its current proxy to perennial media whipping boy Jeremy Corbyn, then, is for you to discern.
Given elements of this policy are already in place, has it been working? In areas where the Lib Dems piloted their School Food Plan, students were found to be on average two months ahead of their peers elsewhere; target levels were reached by 2 percent more children at Key Stage 1, and between 3 percent to 5 percent at Key Stage 2; and "academic improvements were most marked among children from less affluent families".
That food helps children learn is not what the majority of the policy's detractors have been disputing. Rather, they're more concerned about which children will be receiving the food. Universal free school meals, they argue, will result in the taxpayer funding rich kids' lunchtimes and an unfair benefit for the middle classes. Much better to stick with the means-testing approach we have now, where the most vulnerable and only the most vulnerable need to be fed; while any excess money raised can be redistributed around the education budget accordingly.
"A vivid, horrible memory from primary school is of an older boy – parroting contempt he'd heard from his dad – telling those on free school meals that his family had "paid" for their lunches, and helping himself to their food."
Under the current means-testing, which children are deemed sufficiently deserving? Having incrementally increased each year from £13,230 in 2003, to £16,109 in 2010, the annual household income threshold needed to qualify for free school meals has remained exactly the same since the Conservatives reached government. That's seven years of deliberate stagnation. In real terms, you need to be poorer and poorer for your child to get help.
The UK Living Wage is £16,477 (calculated as a 37.5 hour week x 52) as of 2017. If you earned the minimum estimated required to live, your child would not be eligible for free school meals.
In 2015, Child Poverty Action Group put the figure of UK children living in poverty at 28 percent, and yet only 14.5 percent of primary school pupils claimed free school meals last year, and 13.2 percent at secondary. When half of the UK's impoverished children are not in receivership of free school meals, you must vigorously question the means by which they are being tested.
Last year, the price of school meals increased by eight times the rate of inflation, with an average school meal now costing £2.10 a day (£409.50 a year.) That's an unarguably large chunk taken out of the majority of families' disposable income, just on lunch. It's a crippling cost for anyone just above the threshold.
The Children's Food Trust noted that the number of pupils eligible for free lunches who actually claimed them fell from 87 percent to 83 percent in the last year alone. Means testing cuts off care from those just above an arbitrarily decided line – oops, sorry, you're not quite poor enough – and acts as a deterrent to those who fall below it.
It defeats you by other means, too. A vivid, horrible memory from primary school is of an older boy – parroting contempt he'd heard from his dad – telling those on free school meals that his family had "paid" for their lunches, and helping himself to their food. It's a memory that has become bleaker as I've grown older, no longer just an episode of grotesque bullying, but because of the truly terrifying thing it said about his father; that he not only resented, but hated, the parents of poor children for earning less than him, for – in his mind – obligating him to pay for their children's lunch, but also extended that hatred to the children themselves. How do you convince such a person to even protect the idea of means-testing, let alone vote in favour of a fairer increase?
Does the policy satisfy those data-thirsty bores, who must need multiple regression models proving the density of a brick wall before accepting they probably shouldn't repeatedly dash their head into it, that alleviating hunger improves results? Yes (not that it will stop them complaining). Would the policy still be worth pursuing, even if it hadn't had any tangible effect on students' results? Also yes.
How miserable we are, to only be able to quantify the benefits of providing at least one healthy meal a day to all young schoolchildren in terms of the potential economic rewards. We look at excited kids, wild-eyed, thinking nonsensical thoughts and dreaming childish dreams, dashing around playgrounds, clutching at their coats and their crayon drawings, inquisitively staring at things and burbling at one another; and we see just another mouth to feed. No point ensuring these children are well fed unless we know for damn sure it makes a difference to their eventual output in the labour market.
It's desperately sad how many different accounts of essentially the same thing you'll hear speaking to those who work in schools across the country. Heartbreaking efforts of dedicated teachers preparing breakfasts for their classes, giving away their own lunches, clubbing together money in the staffroom when they notice a pupil looking particularly famished.
School doesn't merely facilitate learning; the education system is not simply a conveyor belt for children to be taught, pushed through exams and converted into profit. A child spends half of their waking life within school. For many, it's a respite from the horror of home. A child doesn't ask to be alive. That they expect to eat is not a display of entitlement. We absolutely have a duty of care to make sure they do.