The deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, Nick Clegg has come out in defence of free school meals for six and seven-year old children, after opponents of the Coalition’s plan raised concerns about how they will be funded.
Clegg has said that the budget for providing a hot midday meal to every primary school pupil in the country will be drawn from a £150 million Treasury kitty as well as underspends in schools’ maintenance budgets. He turned the tables on critics worried about the new initiative’s possible impact on cash-strapped taxpayers by saying it was nonsense to suggest the cost of funding extra kitchens will come from funds not available in the total schools maintenance budget.
The £150 million needed to open new kitchens on school premises to meet the demand would be drawn from two contributions. The HM Treasury, the government department in charge of spending for government initiatives in the UK, would give £80 million, while the Department for Education would contribute a further £70 million from surplus funds in the money it awards to schools for maintenance of their buildings and facilities. The money would be used mainly to build new kitchens or upgrade existing canteens to cope with the extra demand expected as more pupils switch from outside lunches to using the school’s kitchen. The money may also be spent on employing extra catering staff.
Nick Clegg has already been given the go-ahead from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to seek financing for universal free school meals, despite one source in the DfE claiming otherwise. The free meals policy has also created friction between Clegg and the Department, with many in the DfE criticising the policy for being ‘cobbled together’ in a hurry, therefore inciting what The Guardian newspaper described as ‘fierce protests’ internally.
In his ‘Call Clegg’ talk show on London news radio station LBC 97.3, the deputy PM continued to defend his policy as he came under fire from within his own party. He said that his ambition was for the best, even if that meant that children of millionaires and high-earning footballers making up to £200,000 a week would also receive free school lunches under his policy. He argued that it was a “general principle that the rich should be entitled to access some public services such as the NHS or a state pension regardless of income”, according to The Guardian.
He added that the four out of ten British families who are not wealthy but earn too much to receive entitlement to subsidised lunches under current eligibility rules would stand most to win financially from receiving free school meals for their children, giving each family a potential saving of £400 a year. Receiving a ready school meal has helped boost children’s attention and attainment levels in school, especially during the afternoon lessons, according to Clegg’s statement on LBC.
After complaints from the ministry for education however, and with some Liberal Democrat politicians accusing the education secretary Michael Gove from the Conservatives of telling lies over the school meals budget, the issue is being escalated to a ‘quad’ of senior politicians in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. The DfE claims finding money for the Clegg policy would force it to raise its basic needs budget, a fund set aside to deal with the provision of extra primary school places due to a recent baby boom and more families relocating to the United Kingdom’s cities.
So serious was the dispute that the Lib Dems accused the DfE of lying about the impossibility of finding extra money from the schools maintenance budget. The DfE have been accused of behaving in a tight-fisted manner over the availability or existence of their fund contributions to free school meals.
“Gove and the DfE had their eye on the underspend for free schools,” said the source, “which I think explains the slight bitterness from the DfE in some of the briefing. What we are seeing from DfE is them going rogue. They are completely out of step. It is time for them to stop whining and get behind a policy that they are going to have to deliver. The DfE are lying if they say there is no money.“
Other Liberal Democrat party members have expressed astonishment at their leader’s claims of funding for his free school meals project. Nick Harvey, a former defence minister from the party, commented “Someone, somewhere, has found £600m a year we didn’t know about down the back of a filing cabinet and has come up with the brilliant brainwave that the best way to spend it is to give a free school meal to all five-, six- and seven-year-olds – regardless of their income level. I am sitting there, gawping in open-mouthed astonishment.” Harvey also said that the money would be better and more fairly spent on providing children from poor families with lunches for the entirety of their passage through compulsory education.
However, Lib Dem schools minister David Laws has supported his leader and defied opponents in his party by favouring the policy, particularly its advantages for helping primary school children learn better. Laws said “Free school meals have multiple benefits – children concentrate more in school when they get a proper, healthy lunch; they eat more healthily; pressure on household budgets is relieved; and families on low incomes who go back to work are helped too – by no longer losing all their free school meal entitlements.“
The DfE in turn fought back, saying that they had no spare cash available to pay for free school meals for all six and seven-year-olds from either their basic needs or maintenance budgets, claims that even Prime Minister David Cameron‘s Downing Street Office have ridiculed.
The free school meals policy unveiled by the deputy prime minister has proved popular with the public. Awarding free school meals to all six and seven-year-old pupils has been welcomed by many parents who are seeing household budgets frozen or reduced and are already struggling to pay for required school items like stationery and uniforms. Under the current school meals system, free lunches are only offered to families claiming government benefits. Children from families who earn above the threshold pay a contribution to their school and others will either bring in homemade packed lunches or pocket money to buy lunches from shops near to the school premises. However, young students taking packed lunches or purchasing lunches from outside food outlets are on the decline as schools encourage their parents to get their offspring eating more healthily. Some schools now operate a lockdown policy at lunchtime, and fizzy drinks and ‘unhealthy’ snacks are banned from being brought on site.
While the Conservatives have been demonised for targeting the welfare state and imposing damaging benefit cuts, Nick Clegg has come out in support of families with young children. He has begun taking in interest in early-years education and has involved himself with government announcements concerning the extension of childcare support, the pupil premium and helping the young unemployed. The Tories had meanwhile earlier on abolished the Education Maintenance Grant, which was money given by the government for young people to cover expenses in attending sixth-form college and have cut back on youth centres and the SureStart programme for nursery school children.
Some Coalition ministers have mooted plans to eventually extend free school lunches to all primary school children, regardless of income.
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