After putting in my written evidence to the Education select committee, I was astonished to see that some of the authors or the original UFSM pilot report entered a submission.
Whilst it is far more polite (and shorter) than my entry, it looks devastating for supporters of the Universal Infant free school meal policy who use the pilot report as justification.
We think that the evidence presented in the DfE document is reasonably accurate and balanced; however, we feel that
- The main evaluation of the free school meal pilots should be a key reference, not just a footnote. The full reference is given below.
- In this report we found that Universal entitlement to free school meals significantly increased attainment in the pilot areas of Newham and Durham relative to a carefully chosen group of similar pupils in non-pilot areas. Pupils in these pilot areas made between four and eight weeks more progress over the two year pilot period than pupils in other areas at Key Stages 1 and 2 (ages 7 and 11). It would be helpful to emphasise the two-year period in the summary of evidence.
- It is also worth noting, however, that the mechanisms through which this increase in attainment was realised were unclear: we found no evidence of significant improvements in behaviour or health(at least not using the measures available to us in the evaluation).
- We warned in our report that it was unclear whether the effects on attainment could be replicated in less deprived local authorities (Newham and Durham are much more deprived than most local authorities). The pilot also invested considerable resources in increasing awareness of free meals and encouraging take-up, e.g. by offering taster sessions. It is not clear whether the impact of offering universal free meals will be as strong in the absence of this additional work.
- Whilst the evaluation did find that the results were strongest for pupils from less affluent families, the results for this group were not statistically significantly different from those from more affluent families. It is therefore not a given that this policy will reduce socio-economic disadvantage in schools.
- The impact report did not (and could not) conclude that take-up increased for already eligible pupils because of reduced stigma, although this is one plausible explanation. Other reasons could include increased awareness of free meals (e.g. parents may not have previously realised they were entitled).
- The evidence cited on nutrition cites the impact on consumption at lunchtime, which is more positive than the evidence on consumption overall. The extent to which this policy will have nutritional benefits outside school hours is therefore not certain.
The authors are critical of the misleading use of statistics, citing the abuse of the pilots two year length to make the figures sound better.
They make it clear that the effects on attainment might not be replicated, highlighting once again that the mechanisms were unclear and that they found no evidence of significant improvements in behaviour or health.
They point out some of the results used in support the policy were not statistically significant and some were directly misrepresenting the report’s conclusions.
In their submission, the authors systematically undermine every argument put up by the DfE in support of the policy. Offering up, in the nicest possible terms, a damning indictment of the evidence used to support the policy (and some vindication for me personally). There is no evidence that simply introducing Universal Infant free school meals will improve children’s attainment, health or behaviour as we are repeatedly promised.
Nick Clegg and David Laws have been complicit in deliberately misleading the British public about the benefits of their UIFSM policy. Put simply, they spent over a Billion pounds on a policy that has no evidence base.