Lies…. Damn lies… Statistics…. then David Laws on UIFSM

Today saw the release of two new documents relating to the universal infant school meals; departmental advice for LAs and schools and a UIFSM toolkit for schools.  There is little that is new in either of these, with the exception of a long awaited explanation of how the funding will be processed and an extra £3k for small schools, I will get to the details of funding in another blog as I would first like to concentrate on David Laws beautifully penned foreword where he waffles on in full on rose tinted spectacle mode. 

What saddens me is that his first paragraph contains lies, misleading innuendo and selective abuses of statistics.

Now I know some people will think it is a bit strong accusing a government minister of lying, but I don’t think there is much doubt? 

Laws says “I am delighted that, from September 2014, all pupils in key stage 1 (reception, year 1 and year 2) in state- funded schools in England will be entitled to receive a tasty and nutritious school lunch, through the introduction of the government’s universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) policy. The independent School Food Plan, published by the Department for Education in July 2013, recommended this policy, based on the findings of the free school meal pilots held between 2009 and 2011” 

It is a lie to say the SFP recommended this policy, it did not.

If you read the SFP (2) you will see that at no point is there any suggestion of the UIFSM policy he is rolling out, not one single mention of targeting infants. The plan actually recommends “Government should embark upon a phased roll out of free school meals for all children in all primary schools, beginning with the local authorities with the highest percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals

The devil is in the detail, apparently minor contextual differences make a huge difference on the ground. Infants instead of all primary really changes the evidence base and the whole justification for the policy, rolling out as opposed to a Big Bang has an incredible impact on the implementation of the policy. 

I suspect Laws is reduced to lying because it makes his ill thought through policy sound more convincing and less like something decided upon on the fly as part of a deal to allow the conservatives to give tax breaks to married couples.

I also find Laws selective choice of evidence from the trials (3) rather irritating.  He appears to justify his policy on the basis of children eating healthier food in a trial where you give children healthier food,  is not great and would be almost impossible for that not to happen. Perhaps he is trying to compensate for the fact the UFSM trial report states “There was no evidence that the FSM pilot led to significant health benefits during the two year pilot period. For example, there was no evidence of any change in children’s Body Mass Index.” Which is rather unequivocal and an extremely inconvenient quote for suporters who suggest UIFSM improves children’s health.

He goes on to quote the key fact pushed time and again by policy supporters, that in the UFSM trial, children perform better.

That basic statistic is hard to deny (though it is worth noting not all children did better in the trial, the top quartile in one area actually did worse), but surely that isn’t enough? Just doing better whilst ignoring the costs is preposterous.  If you are going to justify an intervention on increased performance the question of value should come into the equation, (paying parents £10000 to read with their children would no doubt improve attainment, but it isn’t value for money). 

The evidence from the report actually shows the increases in attainment for infants stood at an unimpressive 4 weeks per year ( Laws always talks about the Improvement over the length of the trial which was 2 years long). Compared to other evaluated interventions 4 weeks improvement  is really quite low.  It is worth noting the trial report actually states “the evidence raises questions over its value for money compared with some other initiatives”  To make things worse, the trial VFM was calculated on the assumption costs would be £112pa, not the £440pa we now see. In basic terms the trial suggest it will now cost a staggering  £220 per child to increase attainment for 1% of the infants receiving UFSM.

It doesn’t stop there, Laws goes on to claim “Schools also reported improved behaviour and atmosphere, as a result of all pupils (and an increasing number of teachers) eating together every day” the repost says  “The evaluation did not include a quantitative assessment of classroom behaviour”  any claims have no statistical basis and it is inappropriate of Laws to claim causation.. He also ignores the report when it says “It is important to note that the mechanisms underlying the improvements in attainment observed in the universal pilot are not clear“. Ie improvements might not be as a result of UFSM. 

I just think it is disingenuous of a government minister to airbrush over the justification for a policy that might sound appealing to voters but has a dubious evidence base and doesn’t appear to offer value for money.

It doesn’t get much better in the rest of his foreword, I find it distasteful that the minister transfers all responsibility for enacting their  policy. Laws appears to be absolving himself from responsibility implying any failings are down to heads or local authorities who are unable to rise to the challenge . He doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the policy is underfunded, that he has no idea how much infrastructure is needed nor how much it will all cost,  No one seems to have an answer to the question who funds the shortfall if meals cost more than the £2.30 on offer? this is highly pertinent given £2.30 was the mean price of meals in 2012 meaning many schools pay more (the cost in the trail was £2.63 for Newham and that was 2011)

All this leave some fairly fundamental questions;

Is there any evidence that the policy offers VFM?

What happens if the infrastructure fund isn’t enough?

What should schools cut in order to subsidise the ongoing shortfall between £2.30 and the actual cost if it is higher?

My fear is that the ministerial answer to all of those is “no idea and don’t care” 

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