Over the past few months, I have spent a great deal of time and effort looking at the evidence surrounding the universal infants free school meal policy. Whilst my blogs have generally been well received, I am aware there have been a small number of detractors. I have been criticised as a Naysayer, as jeopardising the policy and the validity of my evidence brought into question.
I am at a point where I want to move the argument on, I want to try and help schools in any way I can, without the distraction of the same few people repeatedly questioning the facts I use. To this end, and I know this could well sound belligerent, I would like to ask people to “put up or shut up” show me your evidence, prove me wrong?
I am not too proud to accept I made a mistake when faced with contrary evidence and I would love for this policy to have a strong evidence base. I will post all comments as soon as they arrive without prejudice, all I ask is that that you concern yourself with the policy as it stands, which relates to all infants, not selected subsets or future iterations of the policy that may or may not happen. Just provide real evidence from proper research, not opinion, hearsay or small scale questionnaires. So there is the challenge, evidence the policy for infants, perhaps someone could even get Nick Clegg to comment?
I have blogged on 2 main aspects of the policy and on both I think I have been fairly consistent. Firstly I have been critical of the practicalities surrounding the delivery of this policy and secondly I have questioned the evidence used as justification of introducing free school meals to all infants.
On the first issue, the press finally latched on to the fact the Lib Dems HOT school meal promise has been hugely diluted. It wasn’t, as is now argued, just an “aspiration”, there are numerous examples of HOT meals being promoted as the policy. At the very least, Clegg made no effort to correct the impression he was promising HOT meals. As I have pointed out all along, the UFSM policy was miss-sold and never properly thought through. I argued that for a significant number of schools, providing hot meals would be impossible without huge investment as well as ongoing subsidies and despite the zeal of those promoting best practice as a magic bullet, I think I have been proven right. But if you have evidence that there was a deep and meaningful thought process prior to the policy launch, or perhaps you can explain how the £150 million is enough to meet the stated aims, please enlighten us all.
My second issue has been the justification for the policy. I have always had by doubts about the value for money offered by UFSM, I highlighted that this top down policy was not only contradictory to the thrust of government schools policies, but that it would create implementation problems as noted above (as I did the SFP authors who specifically warned against a top down policy) I was also concerned that the vast amount of money could be better spent and have more impact elsewhere.
The more I dug into the evidence used to support the policy, the more convinced I became that the policy had very little or no justification.
When looking at the impact on UFSM on infants, there is no evidence of significant improvement in attainment, no increase in concentration or behaviour, no health benefits or reduction in BMI and most significantly, no evidence of the scheme offering value for money. I base these claims on the evidence relating to infants and only infants within the report into the UFSM pilot. (Sections 4 & 6 are most relevant) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/184047/DFE-RR227.pdf
I am aware that there are a small number of people who disagree with my analysis. They tend to fall into three main camps; those who accept there is no major educational benefit for infants, but point to the hidden benefits that accrue with UFSM. Secondly, those who argue that politicians have indicated they would like to extend the policy to all primary, so the evidence should be based on all primary, thirdly that evidence is immaterial as there is a moral case to provide healthy food to all our children. (There is a fourth category consisting mainly of politicians who simply abuse evidence and argue that we must support the policy because it is popular and it might win them a vote or two)
I wish to consider those three main arguments;
First, I would point out that we are supposedly in an era of evidence based policies, especially within the education sector. Diluting the justification for any policy by admitting there isn’t compelling evidence, but arguing we should proceed because of hidden benefits, just doesn’t cut it. The primary driver for any intervention in schools should be improving pupils attainment, and whilst this policy does shows an overall improvement of around 4 weeks per year, this is barely statistically significant and looks decidedly poor in comparison to other cheaper options. I have no doubt there are hidden benefits, but hidden benefits occur in all interventions. It is disingenuous to argue they should override actual evidence, as is the argument that even the slightest improvement should justify the policy.
Secondly is a common theme of basing the case on all primary evidence, (or the SFP which only talks in terms of all primary). I must admit to having some sympathy with those who argue for UFSM based on KS2, after all this is where the supporting evidence shows UFSM has the greatest impact. It still doesn’t offer VFM, but it brings significant academic improvements to junior aged children. Which makes the decision to target infants all the more bizarre? We must remember that only infants are included in the policy. For those who argue it is a step along the way, therefore making it worthwhile. I would merely point out that your assumptions rely on politicians keeping not even a promise, but an aspiration, which itself is reliant on Lib Dems having enough MPs and there being a a hung parliament and their being enough money. All rather contrived and convoluted, but if you still believe, then I simply point you to Nick Cleggs pledge on Tuition fees and remind you that this is the man your argument relies on!
Thirdly people have put up some strangely described “moral argument”, I have grave doubts that spending £1bilion on an education policy that offers poor value for money is a particularly moral thing to do. There are better ways of improving children’s lives, particularly the poor and disadvantaged, than providing UFSM.
This is a policy which in many cases will mean feeding children who can afford a meal, many who already buy a meal, it relies on councils and schools raiding other budgets to implement, as well as taking up huge amounts of school leaders time. We should be clear that in many cases this policy will not offer the hot sit down lunch and that the most vulnerable already receive a FSM.
I am not arguing against great school food, I firmly believe we should be encouraging better quality provision with well organised lunchtimes. We should do all we can to promote FSM take up, we should look into Breakfast clubs which offer many of the advantages without the cost. But none of these rely on universality. There are other options out there, other better evidenced, better value options. I simply can’t see an overarching moral case for this policy.
So there we have it, I have tried to look at the evidence, listen to the alternative views, but still I can’t get beyond the fact the implementation of the policy remains a mess and it doesn’t offer VFM. I know there are more points to be made on both sides If you have proof, if you can show I am misinterpreting the evidence behind the policy, I think everyone would benefits from you making it public, otherwise please stop carping, as I really would like to move on.
We should remember this is politics. The policy has only been funded to just past the next election, it is regularly justified on cost of living and by how much money it will save parents and there are considerable vested interest involved, both political and financial.
For comparable VFM information http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/