Be careful what you wish for… David Cameron “Saves UIFSM”

Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true!

After months of prevarication about Universal Infant Free School Meals policy, today David Cameron said in the House of Commons today that the Government will ‘be keeping it.’ though he made no mention of how it will be funded.

In Prime Ministers Questions, Cameron said: “I am immensely proud that is was a government I led that introduced this policy {Universal Infant Free School Meals}. I’m proud of what we’ve done and we’ll be keeping it.”

In the blood lust to capitalise on the government’s indecision on the future of universal infant free school meals, opposition MPs blindly prioritised UIFSM above support for other interventions, they ignored the consequences of “Saving” UIFSM, preferring to try and embarrass the PM for political gain.

and it worked. The Prime minister once again deferred to short-term media agenda and crisis management, rather than actual evidence. Around 40,000 signatories, the counsel of a fellow Etonian and the threat of “Dave the dinner snatcher” seem to enough to scare Cameron these days

We should be quite clear, saving UIFSM will not miraculously halt departmental cuts.  Saving one policy from the cutbacks will just deflect the cuts more heavily onto other unprotected DFE budgets. Early years, further education and pupil premium will undoubtedly suffer now UIFSM is staying.

Even worse, because UIFSM is already underfunded and costs are rising, “Saving” UIFSM will eventually harm schools as they are forced to subsidise the policy. John Vincent fell out with ministers when he told the home truth that UIFSM actually needs more money. As Nicky Morgan is forced by number 10 into keeping UIFSM,  do we now expect her to find an extra £200m next year, or will these extra costs just be loaded onto schools to fund from their over-stretched but ring-fenced budgets?

Whilst I have regularly pointed out these obvious consequences, the UIFSM supporters have studiously avoided any mention of the funding. In fact they haven’t engaged at all, no one has put up a defence of their “evidence”, they just scuttle about persuading anyone they can to sign nebulous fact free letters to the times.  Where will these people be when colleges close, when job cuts are announced? Where will they be when schools have sack TAs, in order to top up the funding to pay for the minimum wage rises, where will they be when small schools shut as their costs predictably exceed their subsidy ?

No one should be in any doubt that benefits of UIFSM have been seriously over egged and that good people have been taken in by the hype, misinformation and at times blatant lies of supporters. there are serious vested interests at play and serious money to be made.

The key question to reflect on is does this policy provide value for money? At approaching £850 million next year, the main beneficiaries remain parents who previously paid for school meals (a deadweight cost that simply wouldn’t be acceptable in any other area of education). I haven’t seen anyone suggest UIFSM offers VFM and that is for good reason, it’s an argument that doesn’t stand it up.

They haven’t even bothered researching the benefits, we will never know if the policy makes a difference because no one is monitoring the policy. It’s obscene that we are spending £850,000,000 and no one has even defined what a success is?

Meanwhile we are overwhelmed with stories about children living on poverty who are not entitled to a free school meal, with tales of children going without breakfast and the shocking increase in numbers of children going hungry in holidays. I would contend that these are areas that are in need of funding, that these areas should be a greater priority than UIFSM.

Frank Field put it perfectly “The threat to UIFSM could also give the education secretary a golden opportunity to make better use of her department’s limited resources. Some 1.5 million poor children are currently disqualified from receiving free school meals because their parents claim tax credits to top up their income from low-paid work. Abolishing this penalty would help, in some considerable way, to cement the government’s commitment to ensuring work is the best route out of poverty.”

We shouldn’t be in any doubt this is about priorities, the conservatives are intent on cutting departmental budgets, it is fanciful to imagine the government will somehow find additional money for these other areas of need like holiday hunger AND properly fund UIFSM.

The UIFSM policy brings relatively few benefits for relatively few pupils, we had a small window of opportunity to affect a change, to argue the case for keeping the money in school meals and. to ensure those in greatest need are protected, I doubt very much that will happen now.

I may be old fashioned but i think is perverse that the state pays for the meals of millionaire infants whilst at the next table, older children living in desperate poverty go without. It’s even more perverse that schools and Las be expected to fund the policy from already overstretched budgets and frankly its disgraceful that these consequences were hidden from the public and never openly debated.

Universal free school meals are no panacea, they are not a priority and will drain an overstretched education budget.

Be careful what you wish for……



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