Free school meals should be for every child – no ifs or buts | finn mackay

I remember going to free school dinners at my primary school on the borders of Scotland. We all herded outside, down a small incline, and into the shiny basement with the slippery floor where dinners were served. Huge pans and scuffed stainless steel trays revealed delights such as hash and tatties, treacle tart and custard. We sat at tables covered in Formica, and we also had milk, in little cartons, with little thin blue straws. At the time, I didn’t think much about free lunches, but I saw school as a place that provided, a place where we were fed and cared for. I probably took it for granted – something too many poor students can’t do these days.

This week, 12 school leaders from unions and education trusts wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, calling for the free school meals scheme to be extended to all families on credit universal. It’s a good idea, but it shows how far England is lagging behind its neighbours: in Scotland, free school meals are now universal for all primary school children; Wales are doing the same for their children from September.

There are over 4 million children living in poverty in the UK, and the strong Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and its recent research into the cost of the school day estimate that around 1 million poor children do not benefit from free school meals because of restrictive, arbitrary and complicated social protection systems. While in the short term, the CPAG supports the automatic provision of free school meals for all who receive universal credit, equivalent benefits or without recourse to public funds, it stresses that in the long term, free school meals should be extended and provided to all children, without means testing, without stigma.

My parents were unemployed for part of my childhood and often received social benefits. I refuse to use the term “benefits”, because being poor and having to go and declare yourself poor every two weeks, in order to have a basic minimum to try to survive, is in no way an advantage. This is a bare minimum that any civilized society should provide and ideally exceed. The majority of people work to pay for the necessities of life: bills, rent, travel and food. Hard times, bad luck, bereavement, illness, care and parenting demands happen to almost everyone at some point, and can lead to job loss or a struggle to find flexible employment and paid enough to be worth it. constraints and commitments. The purpose of a social protection system is to cover these periods, to make them liveable, not just survivable.

A society may also choose to prioritize the essentials that everyone relies on and, because they are essential, provide them to everyone – such as hospitals, schools and libraries. Providing good quality basic necessities to all should not be inconvenient or stigmatized. It should be a source of national pride. Not only is it easier and cheaper to provide such services without a means test, but it is also ethically and socially the right thing to do.

All governments like to talk about families. Both left and right political parties invoke totemic references, often tinged with rose, to hard-working families and normal working families. It is time that this ideology was accompanied by real support for families and communities, because society does not and cannot exist in isolation. Children who pass out from hunger during the school day, take leftovers from school trash, or are anxious and tired will not get the most out of their schooling. Their health may suffer in the longer term and, therefore, our future as well. As Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, has said, providing essential services for all can be a “glue that binds a complex, modern society together”.

Criticizing Wales’ universal free school meals scheme, Tory shadow education minister Laura Anne Jones – bizarrely, during a cost of living crisis – said the scheme was out of touch and would mean giving away free food to the children of millionaires. Private fee-paying schools are not included in deployments of universal provision of free school meals in Scotland or Wales. I don’t know how many kids of millionaires go to their local state’s primary, but I for one am happy that the small percentage of kids from minority millionaire families are getting a good quality free lunch along with the rest of between us – the conservatives might even want to think of it as an upgrade.

Finn Mackay is a lecturer in sociology at the University of the West of England at Bristol

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