Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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22/5/17: UK Conservative Manifesto (3): free school lunch and breakfast, where is the parent?

As things stand at the moment, all children in UK state schools in years 1 to 3 (age 5 to 8 approximately) receive a free school lunch.  Youngsters beyond that age receiving free school lunches on a means tested basis, with approximately 18% of all youngsters eligible.

Having set out some funding priorities, the relevant paragraph in the 2017 Conservative Manifesto reads as follows (pages 51-52):

In order to fund these commitments, we have taken an important decision. We do not believe that giving school lunches to all children free of charge for the first three years of primary school – regardless of the income of their parents – is a sensible use of public money. There is now good evidence that school breakfasts are at least as effective in helping children to make progress in school. So under a new Conservative government, schools in England will offer a free school breakfast to every child in every year of primary school, while children from low-income families will continue to receive free school lunches throughout their years in primary and secondary education. The savings made from this change will be added to the core schools budget, meaning that every penny saved will go towards children’s education.

Firstly, I find it difficult to believe that switching from providing free school lunches for 3 cohorts, plus means tested for another 3, to providing free school breakfasts for 6 cohorts, plus means tested lunches for all 6 cohorts, is going to save very much - if any - money.  What, I wonder, is the proposed breakfast going to be and what will the plated cost be?

Beyond this point, I am left feeling very conflicted.  I understand the importance of breakfast, getting the day off to a good start, and that attention levels will be flagging well before lunchtime if children are feeling hungry.  Although curiously, according to a 2015 survey by the British Nutrition Foundation, 92% of primary children do eat breakfast, with this falling off to 76% in the secondary age range.  It is possible that these figures, asking youngsters about what happened on the day of the survey, are higher than the true figure, but nevertheless they are higher than might be expected from some of the rhetoric.

Further, at risk of stating the obvious, there is a clear difference between lunch and breakfast, in that breakfast can reasonably be eaten at home before setting off for school, whilst lunch is in the middle of the school day so will normally be eaten at school, albeit that it may be packed at home.

Where I am heading to here is that this proposal, in the middle of a section looking to save money, represents a significant shift of responsibility from parents to the state.  As considered in this blog post, it was Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Prime Minister from 1979-1990, who said, "There is no such thing as society, only families and individuals."  This proposal hardly seems to be within this spirit.  Is this really what we want?  Should we not be discussing the implications rather than allowing the proposal to go through by default?

Of course, I am writing this having recently spent some years in Africa where this is far less money available for social security.  Whilst providing a safety net for people in difficult circumstances is, I suggest, a good way of spending resources if the resources are then, there is a price to pay in terms of individual, family and community responsibility.  There is a balance to be struck here, I am not at all happy that this proposal gets the balance right.

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