Analysis of David Laws appearance on World at One (including his dodgy evidence)

Draft blog

Today’s World at One continued their story on the universal free school meal fiasco.
It was front page news in the Mail and after a late night conversation I had with Dominic Cummings (ex DfE), it clearly took the eye of the World at One team who secured David laws, the minister responsible for UIFSM, to come in and defend his policy.

Below is link to the section of the show concerned. I am restricting myself to passing comment on the Laws interview as Jon Manels piece and the Cummings comments stand on their own.

To give him some credit, Laws is a competent politician, he knows how long the time slot is, he gets his point across first and avoids answering the difficult questions, usually by answering a different one entirely.

The section opened with a barrage of accusations from Dominic, listed here.

Then at 5:35 Laws was asked about schools extending their lunch hours, including testimony from a head who would have to run numerous sittings, meaning the hall wouldn’t be available for PE.

Laws says he “doesn’t believe schools are going to need to do that ” and rather than explain how the head was wrong, goes on to point to “school food plan” as explaining how the new entitlement could be delivered.

What he seems to miss is that the SFP actually suggest staggering lunch hours or that it has very little help for schools who cant access the new funding and have small halls or worse no kitchens.

Laws then makes his usual claim, the policy will raise “attainment and health” of children. Both claims are dubious at best! (Remember he said it had HEALTH benefits, because Martha questioned this and he shifted his position)

He then gets to the essence of this all, in effect confirming Cummings core accusation, that of pre election politics overriding practicality, he justifies the policy on the basis “it is a popular policy” as if that were justification enough?

Martha then points out that the pilot states “there is no evidence UFSM pilot led to any health benefits”

Laws blatantly ignores the direct quote, instead talking about 3 positive findings he cherry picked from the pilot.

1.”An increase in attainment,” this is dubious at best as I will explain in appendix A

2. He then insists the pilot DID show “Healthier eating”, which is very different to to the point and the evidence presented to him and if you remember the assertion he made earlier where he claimed the policy had HEALTH benefits (It should come as no surprise that a pilot scheme offering free healthy food, increases the numbers who eat healthy food., that doesn’t mean the pilot had the HEALTH benefits he claims)

3. Laws now suggests the policy “impact on school environment” again there is no proper evidence base for this claim,

Martha then asked about value for money, again offering a direct quote from the pilot report.

Laws response?

“Actually it showed that a number of other educational interventions… are less effective than the UFSM policy”

Really? There are four problems with this claim.

1; the pilot found only one intervention offered worse value for money, that was one to one ” Every Child a Reader” which was only marginally more expensive at 2011 levels.

2 the costs involved in the pilot and used in the vfm calculations were £220i per pupil per anum exactly half the £440 the new policy will cost. This dramatically changes any vfm calculations.

3 the improvements in attainment are dubious at best, as I will explain in appendix a

4 Laws doesn’t mention any other interventions and the vfm they offer, conveniently there is a full list of comparable fully costed interventions available.
It is interesting to compare the VFM of UFSM at 4 weeks progress per year with today’s rate of around £400 per percentage point improvement?

Laws then talked about unscientific, unproven benefits and again reinforces his point about saving families money, confirming yet again Cummings assertion that pre election politics is the main driver of the policy.

He then makes a bizarre claim, that the policy will help those who go into school hungry. I don’t understand how lunch will help, surely that point provides justification for the cheaper and easier Breakfast clubs not lunch?

We then hear how badly Cummings comments have rattled the minister, forcing him to blurt out the rather unparliamentary description of Cummings emails as “complete and utter balls”

Laws then drifts along, rolling out another favourite ploy, suggesting the longstanding research and reports were about this policy, again ignoring the fact not once in any report, not even the School food plan was this policy suggested, the SFL came closest advising a gradual roll out to all primary schools, most deprived areas first.

He disputes Cummings claims over costings, insisting the policy was “costed by officials before the announcement was made” which is a very strange claim, as they had to find an extra £150m and another £17m and another £22 million all long after the initial announcement.

Who did the coatings? What were the calculations based on! Did they look at what infrastructure schools would need? If so how did they do it without contacting schools? If it was properly costed, why allocate it out by head count not need? Why give money to LAs in the pilot, who already have facilities? Fact is I believe Cummings on this and I will be interesting in seeing this play out.

Laws adds “No schools has said the revenue funding allocated money is anything other than appropriate” What he neglects to mention is that schools were only told the sums involved very recently, as a result few if any have had time to digest the figures or present them to governors.

Laws knows that many schools will be charged more that the £2.30 (the 2012 mean cost of meals) he has provided and they will have to subsidise the policy from other school funds. Even if the £150m infrastructure fund miraculously were sufficient, the ongoing revenue funding is certainly and evidently underfunded.

This was a consummate political performance, reminiscent of Ian Duncan Smith last Sunday. ignoring facts in the face of compelling evidence and blustering his way through without conceding a single fault.

I have little doubt Laws will continue to claim the policy offers health benefits, he will refuse to answer the serious questions on VFM and ignore the fact the policy is underfunded. It is ironic that a government that presses everyone for strong business cases, fails so badly on this? I will keep chipping away, pointing out the lies and mistakes supporters make, in the hope people see through this fiasco. We are about to commit half a billion pounds a year on a policy that has no compelling evidence base, it is right and proper ministers are held to account, both now and in the future.

Appendix A Questioning the evidence of attainment as shown in the pilot scheme

I have blogged a number of times about the evidence base for this policy, but here is a definitive run through the issues.

Perhaps I should start with an independent review of the pilot evidence?
Public Health England (1) reviewed the pilot evidence

“An evaluation of the Free School meals pilot in England found that the universally extending provision of school lunch eligibility to all students impacted on attainment at Key Stages 1 and 2. However, the study was unable to establish if this was the result of providing free school meals or the wider package of activities associated with the pilot. The extension of eligibility below the level of universality did not demonstrate an improvement in achievement”

So no causation was proven?

The pilot report itself acknowledges there are doubts about any causation {short version (2) full version (3)}

“These effects on attainment could have arisen through the provision of free school meals directly or through the wider activities that accompanied the pilot, such as the promotion of school meals and healthy eating to pupils and parents, or both”

“The source of these improvements in productivity is not clear”

“It is important to note that the mechanisms underlying the improvements in attainment observed in the universal pilot are not clear.”

There are significant questions over the methodology used in the pilot scheme, eg no account was made for the cohort effect, concern over the controls used in to calculate improvements, ie the control areas might not actually be that comparable and some conclusions were drawn from self reporting questions to children.

It would also appear that supporters avoided any systematic reviews and ignored any studies which shows up any negative impact.

I would point you to Louisa Ells report; A systematic review of the effect of nutrition, diet and dietary change on learning, education and performance of children of relevance to UK schools (4)

“The findings from this review suggest there is insufficient evidence to identify any effect of nutrition, diet and dietary change on learning, education or performance of school aged children from the developed world. Further research is required in settings of relevance to the UK and must be of high quality, representative of all populations, undertaken for longer durations and use universal standardised measures of educational attainment. However, challenges in terms of interpreting the results of such studies within the context of confounders such as family and community context, poverty, disease and the rate of individual maturation and neurodevelopment will remain”

No mention of this damning conclusion was made by the pilot report or the school food plan who instead prefer marginally statistically significant “evidence” to assert UFSM had educational impact.

I would suggest this shows just how unscientific and unreliable this “evidence” is and how unacceptable it is that anyone should try and justify a billion pound policy on the back of this “evidence”


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