Yesterday I watched an Ruth Smeeth MP use the House of Commons Adjournment Debate to raise the issue of Child poverty and holiday hunger. She gave an excellent, impassioned speech, well researched, full of facts to show about how difficult life can be for those poorest and weakest in society, I was suitably impressed that a new MP could do so well, so it was particularly annoying to see her arguments ignored by the minister who didn’t see fit to include anything pertinent about holiday hunger in his response.
She seemed to descend into the trap I sometimes fall, providing all the facts, all the supporting proof and assuming that is enough to win the argument. But as history shows, evidence alone won’t always win you the political argument.
I am therefore finishing off an old blog which takes on the issues raised and offers a way forward, a way of prioritising these children who desperately need our help without asking for new money.
Since publishing the blog, I have become aware of a letter to the Sunday Times, claiming uifsm should be saved due to its impact on child poverty. I believe this view to be badly misjudged and one that ignores the evidence. I would encourage any signituaries to read this blog and put foreard any response they might have in the comments. I don’t bite and am always happy to listen to a different view.
Child poverty exists 365 days a year, it’s all encompassing and exists across all school year groups in all areas of the country, rural and urban, country or seaside. Poverty is pervasive and endures when schools break up for the weekend or for holidays. It is a stain on our society that so many live in such conditions and it is about to get worse as the latest Tax credit cuts bite.
Half of all school aged children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals.
Two-thirds (64 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one member works (This is mainly due to the fact that those eligible for working benefits, like working tax credits, are not eligible for FSM, even though they are living in poverty.)
Currently around 28% of the countries school children live in poverty.
Of these 15.2% are eligible for free school meals because of parental benefits claims.
This means we have the appalling situation wherea whopping 12.8% of our school population are living in poverty but not receiving a free school meal.
This is the context that drives me to say we need to do more to help these children, to argue this is where we should focus our effort and where we should be investing our time and resources.
Whatever political allegiances, we are forced to recognise that this government is cutting budgets for both social care and education. Those who think there is a magic money pot that will deliver new funding sources and new policies, need to think again. Like it or not the Conservatives have a majority and they are going to cut government spending and they are going to cut hard.
We have to be pragmatic, under this government, there simply isnt going to be more money. We cant be idealistic and hold out for any particular policy without understanding that other budgets will get cut as a consequence. That is why there is a urgent need to focus on those in greatest need, for evidence based policy, but also demonstrating value and promoting a positive agenda for change.
Beyond the propaganda
We need to see through the propaganda from the vested interests who promote universal infant free school meals. These supporters will continue to push false arguments and made up statistics, they are desperate to save face and keep the money rolling in, we need to be smarter.
When there isn’t likely to be any other source of funding to feed children. we really need to question if spending £850m on universal infant free school meals is a truly a priority.
The Department for Education are clearly (and rightly) unconvinced the policy offers Value for Money. They don’t see evidence of benefits, they are concerned the costs are spiraling and there are better ways to spend the money. Which makes it the ideal time to nudge them into focusing on those in greatest need. Offer them a strong alternative that will do more good, that will help more pupils and in times of austerity, really bring them bang for their buck.
I know there are people who dream of all children to be given a free school meal, but they must accept that would take up 10% of the education budget, there needs to be realistic expectations of the policies impact and the finances.
We need to think beyond the fact uifsm sounds a nice policy and ask what else could this vast amount be used for?
Children go hungry in school holidays, so why not feed and support them during holidays?
Children arrive at school hungry, so why not properly fund breakfast clubs?
Hundreds of thousands of our children living in poverty are not entitled to a free school meal, we could and should feed them! A simple change the eligibility criteria for free school meals could include those deemed to be living in poverty. We have the data, we know which benefits they claim, we know who these children are and where they live. FEED THEM!
We cant just bury our heads in the sand, UIFSM has few tangible benefits. It is already underfunded, many schools already subsidise the cost from teaching budgets. it is a drain on limited resources and yet does very little to help those children in greatest need. As costs continue to rise, unless the government finds yet more money to fund it properly, it will be an even greater drain on even more schools. Just maintaining it as is, will have a devastating knock on effect on early years and FE as to satisfy the Treasury, they get cut instead?
So it is a stark choice, Push to help ALL of our most vulnerable children, or continue with a phenomenally expensive and badly thought through policy whose main beneficiaries are those wealthy enough to afford for a school meal.
I happen to think it is perverse that we continue to feeds the children of millionaires whilst the poorest and weakest go hungry. We need to get our priorities right and fight their corner on those who are in greatest need of our help.
I dont just argue for an end to universal infant free school meals, I argue we use the money to help those actually in need. Those who defend UIFSM above all else, are doing the poorest children a disservice.