THERE’S NO SUCH thing as a free lunch – or, in this General Election, a free breakfast. The funding for the free school breakfast which Theresa May offered the nation will only cover a 25% uptake. Oh dear.
The policy appeared ill conceived from the start. We all knew that school dinners – giving pupils a hot meal in the middle of the day – was a good thing. It allowed the state, by means testing, to offer free dinners to the children who needed them most, while also allowing better off parents to feed their children nutritious meals at a reasonable cost. Jamie Oliver’s work made it clear that this was not only ensuring kids were fed well, it helped their learning.
Some Councils, particularly in poorer urban areas, went further and found the means to offer breakfast as well. Formal breakfast clubs, often sponsored by local businesses, stopped teachers having to bring in breakfast bars, at their own expense, to pass round to children whom they knew had not had breakfast before school. Working parents began using the clubs as pre-school childcare, helping them to get to work on time. And as we all know that a hungry child doesn’t find it easy to learn, there were smiles all round.
What on earth, then, was Theresa May thinking of when she said she would provide free school breakfasts for primary pupils? It sounded so good – until she finished the sentence and we realised the breakfasts were instead of lunch. There is every reason to make sure all children have breakfast before lessons start – but how on earth do you arrive at the conclusion that once you have fed them at 8.30am, children can last until 3.30pm? In fact, many of the teachers value school lunches too!
Even some Tory candidates were uneasy about the policy, realising it made no sense. There was speculation that this was purely a cost-saving measure, freeing up funds to narrow the schools funding gap, which was becoming increasingly unpopular. While most schools need kitchens and staff to prepare and serve lunches, breakfasts of cereal and toast could be served by unskilled (cheaper) staff – with food costs much lower too.
Implementing the system would presumably have led to almost everyone currently employed as a schools meals worker (almost all of them women) being made redundant and having to claim benefits – but May made no mention of this extra financial burden on the state.
Things couldn’t get any worse. And then they did.
The Conservatives had announced that offering free breakfasts to all primary pupils would cost £60 million. However, a party spokesperson has now admitted that the costing assumed a take up rate of only 25%. The revelation was extracted after education experts had independently costed the policy – and arrived at sums between £180 million and £400 million, depending on numbers taking the breakfast and the food cost.
It couldn’t get any worse. And then it did. Yes, it did.
It turned out that Conservative Central Office had costed its proposal by scaling up one particular breakfast club called Magic Breakfast. They appear not to have noticed that Magic Breakfast relies on donations of food, which heavily subsidise its running costs.
It couldn’t get any… OK, you know where we are going on this one.
If, say, 25% of children came in for a free breakfast, the food could be served by unskilled staff – but skilled staff would need to be present to supervise. And if working parents could drop their children off at a free supervised breakfast club, they wouldn’t need to pay out for pre-school childminders – leading to job losses in that sector.
Yes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch – or a free breakfast. We can all dine out on that one.
•Read more about it:
Schools face funding crisis
Parent protest wins Government SATs U-turn
•Watch more about it:
Jamie Oliver explains why this policy is wrong:
Mayor Lutfur Rahman defends his policy of free school meals for primary school children in Tower Hamlets: