Labours Universal Free school meals… Poor policy from a poor Leader


The past few days have been eventful, not least because Jeremy Corbyn surprised everyone, including many of his those in his own party, by making a big announcement about the Labour party’s new, ground-breaking education policy idea was……………….. half Micheal Goves idea and half the Lib Dems idea.

The first half of his plan; to tax private school fees, will obviously go down well with everyone who doesn’t pay school fees. Taxing the rich is always going to draw in support, especially with Labour left. OK, there are quibbles about how much it will raise and the unintended consequences of parents leaving private schools and returning to the state sector, but on the whole, most people, including me, seem supportive of this move.

Unfortunately for Labour, the free school meal aspect hasn’t been universally welcomed.  People have quite rightly pointed out the evidential flaws used in the justification and more importantly, questioned if providing free food should be a priority when our education system is facing the deepest funding crisis ever.

I generally stay out of politics, but as this is one of my pet issues I stuck my head up above the parapet. My opinion was sought by many, my blogs saw renewed interest and I was asked to write something for TES (well worth a read if i do say so).  What I wasn’t expecting was the level of vitriol and general hatred for simply reiterating my longstanding and to my mind, well thought through position. I had inadvertently along with others like Laura McInerney and Gaby Hinsliff taken on the mantle of the Child catchers’ evil sibling who specialised in laughing at children whilst they starved to death. There was little honest debate, just a rabid left shouting at anyone who disagreed with their beloved leader.

I tried to engage, often failed, but I managed to distil it down to 4 main arguments that seem to go

  • There is plenty of money to do everything and we love universal benefits
  • Schools single out FSM children and stigmatise them
  • You are a child hating tory bastard
  • You are a bastard tory child hater

As a fair minded sort, I will respond to each argument in turn

Firstly, there is NOT enough money to do everything everyone wants.

There I’ve said it. Politics, like Life is about compromise and priorities.

This isn’t to suggest I buy into the current austerity drive, just that with underfunded Education, competing with the underfunded NHS and the underfunded Police and underfunded prison service.  We would have to see an unprecedented turnaround in economic fortune and massive increase in tax revenue before we could properly fund every desirable aspect of society.

Not that this deters everyone.  Like Corbyn who said “I am strongly wedded to the principle of universalism in benefits.” there are some on the left supporting this policy because they see it as a Trojan horse, that by introducing universality it will subsequently expand to every benefit, others prefer class warfare and see this as the first step in destroying the current capitalist system. To be honest, I’m not convinced of either the economics or the practicalities of a unilateral economic revolution, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Staying on the specifics of universal free school meals, it may surprise people, but I would actually love to see all schools providing high quality freshly crafted, healthy and nutritional lunches to every single child. I would like to see more that 50p spent on ingredients, bigger portion sizes, halls big enough so pupils don’t have to rush, nice crockery and cutlery. However, I know that comes with a cost, I know that spending £10 billion on my personal school food plan would have a knock on effect somewhere else, something else would have to give. Even if we ended the Tory austerity drive there are schools that need urgent maintenance, teacher recruitment needs addressing, there is asbestos to remove, mental health councillors to employ, Holiday hunger, new schools to be built,  shorter hours, breakfasts, Libraries, books, TAs, CPD ….. a whole long long expensive list of things that need sorting.

They all need sorting and yet Corbyn determined not to come up with a plan to sort any of them. Instead he comes up with a discredited plan that funds feeding children regardless of their need.
Contrary to the lefts “we can have it all view”,  Labour haven’t come up with a magic money tree.  Despite the pretence that his policy would benefit “all children”, this policy only feeds Key Stage 2. In Corbyns world all the arguments about hungry children needing food seem to dissipate in to the ether when children start secondary school.

The reality has struck and Jeremy has been forced to prioritise, been forced to compromise in his ambition because for one of the first times, he is coming up against the practicalities of real world politics.

Once you accept that Corbyn is actively rationing the support he is giving to children, the question is why. Why despite the all evidence, did the Labour party make universal free school meals for primary aged children its top spending priority?


Secondly on stigma, As soon as you chip away at the supporters arguments, pointing out the lack of evidence around their claims of health benefits, or highlight the fact means testing will continue,  there is almost a knee jerk response of “what about the stigma on all those FSM children”.  For a section of the left, his appears to have become a driver for the policy, its like some nascent Munchausen By Proxy has overtaken them.

I am not sure how many of these people have been into a Junior school recently, but as any teacher will tell you, schools go to great lengths to ensure FSM children are not identified or singled out. Allegorical tales of abuse from umpteen years ago are simply not relevant with today’s cashless offices. Not only are people wrong about FSM stigma in schools, If anything they are actually driving it and making it worse.

There is clearly a perception amongst a section of society that children are being picked on specifically because they receive free school meals. I blogged on this a few years ago, pointing out the disparities and how things are different but try as you might I can’t persuade them otherwise.

This really becomes a serious problem when this perception, this fake news, takes hold and becomes the story and gains momentum in the media.

It is hard enough to get people to sign up for free school meals as it is, but by yelling incessantly about the illusory stigma endured by primary children on FSM, these people are in real danger of putting people off applying.

Primary schools know too well that its already a struggle to sign parents up thanks to UIFSM , a mass of left wingers screaming about the horrors can and will make things worse. They are putting vulnerable people off FSM and it makes me actually quite cross.

If people have a new found mission in life to end the stigmatisation of children on free school meals, then firstly they need to shut up about it and secondly, they should be prioritising secondary schools, which is where any stigma is happening (and even there, I don’t believe it is a major issue).


I will take the final two points, together because clearly anyone who disagrees with the left wing of the Labour party is deserving of all the nastiness the keyboard warriors can spew.

Not only have I consistently questioned the benefits of universal free school meals, I have brought the government to account on its failings and regularly suggested alternatives, many of which are now mainstream in education circles. This isn’t new to me.

I genuinely struggle with the basic justification that Labour is citing for the policy, namely that it “would benefit the educational attainment and health of all children”. The evidence that a universal meals policy would, on its own, improve attainment, is questionable; the evidence that it would improve health is totally non-existent.

But here’s the thing, when you have a leader claiming his policy will improve health, that it will fight obesity, when there is incontrovertible evidence that in his own constituency, the policy is seeing an increase in obesity, you have to question the mans decision making.

That his followers choose to strike out so violently at people who put forward a different and almost certainly more informed view, should be worrying for the future of the Labour party.  Just like Nick Cleggs universal Infant FSM policy, this is a waste of time and money.  I had hoped Labour would see sense, would look at the evidence, but it seems to have fallen into the same shallow PR driven, ill thought out policy chasm the Lib Dems are still trying to recover from.

Corbyn is no messiah, he’s a politician who makes bad judgment calls just to try and gain good PR…. Whisper it quietly, Ken and Hitler are no longer news, tax the rich, feed the rich is now the story.



Finally one word for those Teachers and Governors who profess support for the policy. There is absolutely nothing to stop you from putting the policy into your own school, you could use GAG if you saw it as important. But you won’t put your money where your mouth is, because you have other priorities. If you can’t justify imposing UFSM in your own setting, how on earth can you argue it should apply to everyone else?


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