The Lib Dems have announced a new pledge from government to make school meals free for 4-7 year olds.

School meals

I am a fan of school dinners. We pay £10 a week for my 6 year old to have school dinners, and my younger child would benefit from such a policy. I do think a well fed child is better able to learn.

Indeed the evidence has been there for a long time. A search on the academic database worldcat on “school meals educational outcomes” returns 544 results. There is a strong body of evidence that there is a link between diet and performance. But from the news reporting it sounds like it was two entreprenurial¬†restaurateurs (we checked and there’s no ‘n’ in that word!) who were commissioned to create a report that finally got listened to. Ok, so maybe that makes the report more media friendly. The soundbite I heard was one of them saying that a pilot school they had visited was “transformed”. I have worked in education research and policy long enough to know that the first trial of any big change can create a big response: just being in the spotlight and having researchers take an interest can change the tone of the school. For a while. That first phase is not an indication of a lasting change of the same magnitude. (See “hawthorne effect“). That is why research methodologies need to be rigorous to truly assess the overall impact of proposed polices. I suspect that the literature agrees with the soundbite conclusions, but surely too much weight has been given to anecdote?

So … make free school meals universal. If they are so good for learning and wellbeing then all children should benefit. I find myself wondering which schools will get subsidised? all schools? state schools and private schools and everything in between? The boundaries are so blurred now that I fear that private schools are subsidised by my tax. I would not be happy with that.

But leaving that aside, a purported benefit of universal free school meals is to remove the stigma. Now, I remember at secondary school, there was a discrete system. I queued up with my cash-carrying friends and there was a dinner lady with a tupperware box full of plastic coin-shaped tokens and a clipboard. She handed me my token, and I paid at the till along with everyone else. I remember being curious about who else had tokens, but never felt stigmatised because it was handled sensitively. I can’t remember how it worked at primary school. And I definitely can’t remember how it worked at infant school. So, wait … is there evidence that 4,5,6 and 7 year olds suffer any stigma? And … wait … my 6 year olds meals are paid for in advance via an online system. So there is no distinguishing between subsidised and non-subsidised children in that school. There is already a way to remove the stigma: using a system like that not even the teachers or lunchtime staff need to know.

And now we get on to what I think might be the key issue here.

If you read about schools, Ofsted reports, league tables etc you will find mention of “proportion of children in receipt of free school meals”. There’s a reason for that: free school meals does act as a proxy marker for low income households. As I understand it schools don’t know the economics of a pupil’s home, the only signifier they get of a low income home is if that child is on free school meals. This allows them to direct funds for things like subsidising school trips, and rightly so.

It also means that when comparing an inner city school in an area of low income with a school from a wealthy suburb, the “proportion of children is receipt of free school meals” percentage signifies the additional challenges the former school faces. The “free school meals” marker is the main indicator of the uneven playing field between schools. It is part of how schools signal to the regulators that SAT results are not their only priority, that they are doing their best in areas where parents are out of work.

If 4-7 year olds all get free school meals what does that marker get replaced with?¬† I would like to think that it would just be a simple marker of “children from low income households”. There should be no shame in being on a low income. It’s not a moral issue as far as I’m concerned, it’s just an economic fact. There shouldn’t be a stigma attached to being from a low income household. (I’m less sure that the current government agrees with that, but for what its worth let’s continue to remember that being poor is not a moral failure).

My suspicion, however, is that the marker won’t be replaced by anything. Schools in challenging circumstances will not be able to point to evidence of their challenge. After all, that inconvenient fact that this is not a level playing field has made the present government a little uncomfortable. Gove would like to present schools as “businesses” that “with the right leadership and values can all compete and collectively raise their standards”. That is not an actual quote but I can imagine him saying it.

I don’t think the removal of the marker is the purpose of the policy: I think the Lib Dems probably want it for all the right reasons. But the side effect described above might be partly why the Conservatives are not challenging it. This is the government that is trying to reduce the number of unemployment claimants (which forms a major indicator of economic health) not by creating jobs, but by tightening the criteria for unemployment benefit. The government seems to treat economic statistics as key performance indicators (KPIs) to be met at any cost. I can well imagine that it would be a rather “beneficial” side effect of universal free school meals to make that marker disappear.¬† First for infant schools, then perhaps further. And then finally the government will be able to paint their picture of a meritocratic UK, where any school can become top of the league tables, and any child can rise to their chosen profession, if only they eat their greens and work hard. I hope I’m wrong

Free School Meals? Yes. But.