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TEACHERS AND SCHOOL STAFF IN ENGLAND have asked for all children whose parents are on Universal Credit to get free school meals.

In a letter to Nadhim Zahawi and Rishi Sunak they said: “We see the devastating reality of children coming to school unable to afford to buy lunch, because their family circumstances means they fall outside the restrictive free school meal eligibility criteria” This restrictive approach means that in England 800,000 children living in poverty are denied free school meals.

This request to remedy this situation was laudable and very reasonable. But surely England can do better than this? The situation in Scotland and Wales is already more enlightened, with both the SNP and Labour governments working towards the provision of free school meals for all primary school pupils in the next few years. This would seem to be the right thing to do. Not only in a moral sense, but also in a more pragmatic sense, as an investment in future health and wellbeing.

There is convinving evidence that universal free school meals can be a good investment for a country. Just last year, Swedish researchers produced a study of a programme that introduced free nutritious school lunches for all pupils in Swedish primary schools between 1959 and 1969. They found that children who benefited during their entire primary school period went on to have higher lifetime incomes, with children from poorer households benefitting the most. The researchers conclude: “Our study provides evidence that a universal programme offering school-aged children nutritious meals can be seen as an investment in their long-run human capital, with high internal rates of return.”

Interestingly, the children in the Swedish programme also became significantly taller, whereas children in the UK are shorter than children in comparable countries.

Another international study in 2021 compared England’s current school meals provision with that in Portugal, a country that is less wealthy than the UK. It found that meals in Portugal are impressively nutritious and substantial, whilst meals in England are paltry and lacking in nutrition. In Portugal, “A standardised menu is offered to children, irrespective of families’ ability to pay, including a daily soup starter, meat and fish on alternate days, bread and a piece of fruit or (occasionally) jelly for dessert…Those in the lowest income group are entitled to a free school meal; others pay half the subsidised cost, while the rest pay the full amount capped at €1.46 [currently £1.27] per day.”

The researchers conclude: “The UK can learn much from Portugal and, given our relative wealth, we can go further. Nutritious school meals should be routinely provided free for all children throughout compulsory schooling, without stigma or means testing. As Margaret McMillan argued a century ago, if the state insists on compulsory education, it must take responsibility for the proper nourishment of school children. Or, as Danny Dorling wrote more recently, ‘we don’t have free school chairs or tables for means-tested children while others pay for their chairs or tables or bring them in from home’

Universal free school meals could be a real positive in the lives of disadvantaged children, giving them the security of knowing that whatever is happening at home, whether it be financial troubles, addiction or mental health problems, illness or bereavement, they are sure of a good nutritious meal every day. It may not be much, but for a child whose life is in turmoil it could make a big difference. Like Scotland’s baby boxes, ‘designed to give every single baby in Scotland an equal start in life’ such meals could be a strong statement that whatever their background, all children are equally valued.

And really, if parents can be fined for not sending their children to school, isn’t it only fair that the school, in return, cares for those children properly – and having care of a child for a day surely implies a responsibility to feed them?

Under the current system in England however, children beyond Year 2 who don’t qualify for a free meal but whose parents are struggling for whatever reason, may in effect be punished for their parent’s problems. With money in education being extremely tight (and even tighter in poorer areas which have been targeted for the biggest education cuts) some schools have adopted a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to school meal debt. One primary school, for instance, told parents that arrears exceeding £6.60 would mean the school “will only be able to offer bread, fruit and water to pupils.”

Such debts, which involve relatively small sums, can produce stress and misery for all concerned. They require school staff to be debt collectors, with all the potential for conflict and humiliation that may bring.  And of course, the children affected may be those least likely to get a decent meal at home.

Nutritious school meals for all young children should be seen as an investment in the country’s future. All too often, politicians who are ideologically committed to a small state justify their meanness by saying they don’t want to burden our children with some future public debt. This is simply wrong. The future condition of a government balance sheet will have far less impact on the lives of the UK’s children than poor nutrition and the stress of poverty in their formative years. If we skimp on their health and wellbeing now, they, and the country, may pay a high price in the future.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020).  Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden