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“Millions for Free Food for the Richest Kids”

John Rentoul

hypoc1 300x291 Millions for Free Food for the Richest KidsNick Clegg, leader of the Illiberal Democrats, will announce in his leader’s speech today a plan to offer school lunches free at the point of consumption to all five-, six- and seven-year-olds.

This is a nice-sounding idea, and never mind that Lib Dems have opposed it when Labour councils have done it (see picture, thanks to Victoria Mills).

But it is not a liberal idea to spend £600m of taxpayers’ money on a subsidy to better-off parents.

Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of Leon restaurants who has advised the Government about school food, thinks it is a good policy, and says we should read chapter 11 of his School Food Plan. I have, and it is persuasive and well-written, but it doesn’t quite succeed in justifying the spending of such a large sum of public money. Especially when there isn’t any.

The strongest argument for the policy is that the pilot schemes in Newham and Durham have been associated with higher attainment, especially among pupils from lower-income households – that is, precisely those already entitled to free school meals. This is curious, and the Government’s advisers say that the reasons for it are “not clear”. It doesn’t appear to be because pupils spend more time in school or because overall consumption of different types of food had changed.

I can think of three possible explanations. One is that hot lunches – and the pilots increased take-up – lead to pupils working more productively in the afternoons. Another is that the ending of the stigma attached to means-tested free school meals improves motivation. The third is the Hawthorne effect well known in industrial experiments – that any change in a working environment can lead to a (temporary) increase in productivity.

I doubt if stigma is much of a factor in most schools, but if the first is right then the answer is to take advice from Dimbleby and others about how to make school lunches more attractive so that pupils choose them rather than to bribe their parents with their own money to make their children have them.

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  • Russell Child

    The strongest argument for the policy is that the pilot schemes in Newham and Durham have been associated with higher attainment, especially among pupils from lower-income households – that is, precisely those already entitled to free school meals

    So we should provide students with free school means because it makes them more productive, not for reasons of common humanity. As much parsimony and empathy as you’d expect I suppose.

  • Pacificweather

    If it gets them eating vegetables then it is no more than another farming subsidy.


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