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Free school meals for all children between four and seven years old is £600m well spent, according to leading children’s charities and organisations, though politicians and economists are clearly divided on the issue.
Dr Hilary Emery, chief executive at the , is passionate that the policy will have a massive impact upon child health, education and upbringing, commenting:
“We welcome proposals to provide free school meals to all children attending infant school. It’s encouraging that politicians have recognized the clear link between a good diet, children’s health and performance in education, which is of particular importance to low income families who, as our recent report ‘Greater Expectations’ showed, have poorer health, are more likely to be obese and don’t do as well in school. Giving every infant school pupil the right to a free school meal will provide a level playing field for all pupils and encourage them to adopt healthy eating habits later on in life.”
Dr Emery continues: “Research shows that children who enjoy a nutritious meal at school are more likely to be alert and attentive in class and behave better towards their classmates. These proposals are good news for children and will also be welcomed by working families who, while not eligible for the current provision of free school meals, may struggle to meet the cost of providing a balanced lunch for their children.”
Anne Longfield, chief executive at charity , also believes the policy is in tune with the wishes of parents, saying: “This is a welcome announcement which is likely to be popular with parents and make a real difference for children. From what we have heard, it has the makings of the kind of policy that parents are looking for from all political parties, understanding the importance of nutritious healthy food and recognising the financial pressure families are under.
“Regular, nutritious meals are crucial in supporting the healthy development of children. Providing a nutritious, hot lunch for all infants in primary school promotes positive eating habits and helps to ensure that children are able to concentrate and perform well in the classroom.”
Announcing the policy at his party’s Glasgow conference this week, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke of the Liberal Democrat’s intention to reach out to those families who have experienced financial difficulty over recent years, saying:
“My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day. “Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze. Over the course of a year families spend over £400 lunch money for each child. I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families.
“We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits.
“Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society.”
However, the response has been mixed at a political level, with some of the media alleging that the Lib Dems have compromised on other parts of their policy in order to strike up a deal with the Conservatives on free school meals.
Chris Keates, general secretary of teachers’ union NASUWT, chose to pour scorn on other areas of Lib Dem policy, commenting:
“The announcement of free school meals for all infant school children is very welcome.
“Unfortunately, this does not atone for the Liberal Democrats complicity in removing the entitlement of children and young people to be taught by a qualified teacher, axing the funding for access to further education, tripling university tuition fees and slashing child benefit.
“Questions also need to be asked about how much more cash is in the stash that they clearly have for pre-election giveaways at a time when ordinary families are suffering real hardship and more and more children each year are being plunged into poverty.”
While Mark Littlewood, director general at the Institute of Economic Affairs, launching a scathing attack on the policy as being poor for the country economically, saying:
“This is an enormously bad use of public money. Not unreasonably, the government already ensures that those in need have access to free school meals, so it beggars belief that we are now going to see a policy instated which will subsidise the children of affluent families.
“If the Government meaningfully wants to ease the burden of rising living costs then they would be better placed to introduce a £437 tax cut each year and give parents some choice.”
Ms Longfield disagrees that this is the case, however, seeing the policy as having an impact on the lives of poorer families that is long overdue.
She continues: “Importantly, helping in this way should provide some welcome relief to the finances of those families with young children who we know have been hit hard by the economic downturn.
“Providing free school dinners for all should also get over the stigmatisation that prevented hundreds of thousands of eligible families claiming in the past – a particular problem in some of the poorest, inner city areas of England. “Whilst this announcement appears to hold good news for families, it will be important to ensure that it does not negatively impact on spending in other important areas of support for children and families.”