Taking the ‘free’ out of free school meals

What could be a big help to parents is really about taking choices away from them.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

It’s party conference time and the Lib Dems have been making a few minor announcements to drum up a bit of publicity and make them feel better as the junior partners in the coalition. At the weekend, it was the naff and environmentally meaningless launch of a tax on plastic carrier bags. Today, leader Nick Clegg was able to announce free school meals for infants – basically, kids from ages five to seven.

If I was the parent of a young child, the news that children in the early years at school would get free nosh would be welcome. It’s a small weight off the family finances and might make life a bit easier for those currently making up packed lunches. Providing a decent meal at lunchtime seems like a civilised thing to do, too, though it won’t be cheap: £600million per year.

But this is a good policy built on bad reasons. First, it will be claimed that this will somehow make a dent in Britain’s ‘obesity epidemic’. But quite apart from the fact that children are probably healthier than ever before, obesity rates for children have been flatlining or even declining in recent years.

Second, and more explicitly, there is the suggestion that better nutrition will lead to better attainment. This really is a shaky idea. While it is not unreasonable to assume that a genuinely hungry child won’t concentrate as well at school, the claim that simply eating the ‘wrong’ foods – like white sliced bread, fizzy pop or crisps – affects children’s learning is much more dubious. The ability of kids to understand what they are being taught is about a hell of a lot more than the biochemical inputs they receive.

Worst of all, the underlying message is that the state must step in because parents can’t be trusted to feed their children in the correct manner. Of course, there will always be examples of children being sent to school with no breakfast or an absurdly inadequate packed lunch. But the vast majority of parents make careful choices about what they know their kids will eat. Finding something that their fussy offspring will consume is often one of the biggest day-to-day challenges for many parents.

Now, the state will make that choice for them. Okay, school meals aren’t yet compulsory, but making them free certainly qualifies as a bit of arm-twisting. Under the new plan, according to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, ‘every child gets the chance in life they deserve’ to eat healthily and learn good eating habits. Implicitly, the suggestion is that leaving lunch up to parents is just too damn risky.

What parents are really being served up here is a plateful of patronising junk.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

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