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Should Universal Free School Meals be extended to secondary students in Wales?

18 Aug 2023 5 minute read
The parents or guardians of around 2,700 primary and secondary school pupils will receive £3.90 a day over the holidays

Terry Mackie

Tom Mayhew, one the best comedians around, has a great line: “I find it bizarre that some people don’t think we should give kids food for free, but they will happily go to the park and feed the ducks.” Tom is getting to the core of good old ‘British Values’.

There is a serious debate now going on about Free School Meals (FSM) and Universal Free School Meals (USFM) in the UK. The latter means feeding all children without direct payment or benefits a school lunch. It’s a debate far healthier than lots of school meals themselves. This all started ten years ago but as a result of the divergence of devolution it is hitting the headlines big time.

In a nutshell, England’s Tories, whose 2010 coalition with Lib Dems started the USFM ball rolling in 2013, are uninterested in extending their Infant School USFM up the Primary school range of years 3 -6. Labour is in favour;  this is sure to be an election policy difference.

Scotland and Wales are committed to USFM across all 4-11 year olds within the next couple of years, though the Scots are still looking down the back of the sofa for the money.

Wales has planned budget resources and 3 Welsh Councils are advancing year 6 USFM, at the same time as this September’s Year 5 phase. Go to the top of the class.

Northern Ireland is the only one of the four nations that does not provide Infant School USFM. Constitutional impasse prevents even policy debate.

Mixed picture

This mixed picture is fascinating and is freighted with real politics. Except no nation has made any move to contemplate USFM for secondary students. That is illogical; if USFM is productive for children’s educational improvement, it stands that we should include those at the critical developmental stages of 11-18 years. The barriers are resources and courage.

Before any detail, let’s talk values and principles: here’s the thing. I haven’t changed my tack from when Nick Clegg announced USFM as a plan for the first time, for England, ten years ago:

“Our schoolchildren must be treated as honoured guests in terms of their lunchtime. The public purse can now afford that duty to be carried out for all and at good quality. Other benefits will accrue, such as sociability and better nutritional habits” (Western Mail).

Nearly all parents really want: good nutrition, no payment portals faff, all kids treated the same and better ‘attainment and well-being outcomes’ by good lunchtime provision. Teachers and heads want easier admin and more inclusion.

The silliest word in all this FSM/UFSM talk is ‘free’. Nothing but air is free and that is getting very expensive if you live in a polluted city.

Everything costs; the real argument boils down to ‘how do we pay?’ Currently it’s patchy stuff across the UK, a system of FSM and USFM, direct payments/benefits/state provision. Could we now channel all this malarkey through the public purse?

Show me the money

Of course we could, in theory. What would it cost and for what purpose against other worthy purposes would we choose to do this? In other words, firstly, show me the money: does the extra resource exist? Secondly if it does, why blow it all, say £3 billion UK wide, including £200 million for Wales, on a radical policy of 3-18 UFSM?

Opportunity costs and benefits must be assessed strictly. This one is a big deal. But Wales is pledged to Future Generations planning, right?

The IFS report of March 2023 on school meals is brilliantly entitled, among other things: ‘options and trade-offs’. The research is about England but it has much further reach.

It truly is a ‘political menu’: we in the UK have to make all sorts of big choices in the next year or so. This is a deal beyond schools or education, impacting millions of families and their children; it has investment and employment implications.

It speaks to ‘what sort of a society do we really want?’ One that is more about individuals or one that leans into more collective cohesion? Marketeers/statists? My case is that £3 billion can be found and would be UK money well invested towards these ends:

  • School food for all and made easy
  • More nutritious school lunches (my figures have added in £500 million more than the IFS estimate for quality improvement)
  • Better learning outcomes (the research is simply positive)
  • More chance to integrate food and diet into a universal curriculum, especially bilingually in Wales
  • More money for kitchen and supervisory staff
  • Longer lunchtimes benefitting teaching staff and pupils
  • Savings on FSM admin and less bureaucracy for heads and school office
  • Packed lunch option not affected in accordance with parental choice

I believe the £3 billion would be a more productive spend than anything else I can think of for more learners. Institutional hospitality reaps rich rewards. It’s a lot of money: USFM 3-18 would be well worth it.

Terry Mackie has worked in and for schools in Wales and England for 45 years. He is the author of the 2019 book The Slow Learning Country: Out of the Dim into the Light.

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Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones
8 months ago

If we can afford to subsidise Westminster and The House of Lords, we can afford to do this.

… Feed the kids. It is a basic thing that any sensible system would have sorted out way before it invented the novelty ringtone.

8 months ago

What is the latest estimated cost of replacing Trident? It was £205 billion last time I checked but there’s been some inflation since then.

8 months ago
Reply to  Mawkernewek

Correct. … and the last time I looked there was nothing edible in the bill of materials for Trident, it just gobbles up money !

David Smith
8 months ago

A useful summary. In response to those challenging the benefits of Welsh Governments universal approach to Free School Meal’s this BMJ article says: “A concerning number of children are experiencing food insecurity in families with higher/professional levels of education who are likely to be above the eligibility threshold for FSM” From a Public Health perspective it is crucial to understand that Public Health Nutrition is a growing neglected issue and that Ultra-processed Foods are a major driver of growing child and adult obesity. Public procurement of food is an under-utilised tool to improve dietary intake. Government should regulate levels… Read more »

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
8 months ago
Reply to  David Smith

I thank you, Mr Smith. Your vast knowledge is invaluable and supports the UFSM concept fully. Quality nutrition is a massive health and social issue. At present bad food culture is draining public services resources. We have the capacity to stop that in its tracks by making schools centres of good nutrition and food learning. Wales is showing the way forward, to its credit. Onwards and upwards now with the age range. Complete the job, invest and implement the best ideas and practices for all our children and families.

Diolch yn fawr.

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
8 months ago

Free school meals for all primary schoolchildren in England have been ruled out for now by Labour. I apologise for this late update! Thanks to Andrew Rawnsley for this info.

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