What does Labour's school meals policy mean for families, teachers and politicians?

Jeremy Corbyn may be on to a winner politically but there are implications for welfare, health and education

Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement of a £1bn plan to introduce a VAT tax on private schools to pay for free school meals for all primary children has divided opinion.

The Labour policy was greeted warmly by many health, welfare and education experts, while others pointed to potential pitfalls in its logic. Politically, it seems the Labour leader may be on to a winner, but how has the plan been greeted by families, teachers and politicians?


The extension of free meals to all primary school pupils would certainly boost attempts to tackle poverty, lifting thousands of children above the breadline, providing financial respite for hard-pressed parents and removing the social stigma endured by many pupils who qualify already.

An estimated 1.2 million children in England living below the poverty line missed out on free school meals in 2013, according to research by the Children’s Society. Half of these were simply not entitled to support under eligibility rules that restricted entitlement to pupils whose parents were unemployed or earning less than £16,200.

The impact of this eligibility “cliff edge” can be dramatic: while 70% of children on free school meals ate a school canteen lunch regularly, take-up slumps to 20% among the children of poorer parents who are in work, suggesting many parents struggle to meet the £450 annual cost for each child.

The coalition’s introduction in 2014 of universal free school meals to all children in the first three years of primary school meant an estimated 200,000 children in poor working families qualified for a free lunch. Extending eligibility to all would help even more of the offspring of the “just about managing”.

Interestingly, about 700,000 families who were eligible for free school meals did not claim them, the Children’s Society estimated. This was possibly because of the stigma attached, especially in schools where children who took up the benefit were segregated in separate lunch queues or required to pay with special tokens.

Universalising free school meals will always raise objections among those who believe it is a poor use of public money. Supporters say richer pupils are not expected to pay for books so why are they for school food? Patrick Butler

Children’s health

Anti-obesity campaigners and experts are clear: free school meals are a weapon in the war against ill health. Whether they are from affluent or hard-up families, many children eat packed lunches that are full of saturated fat and sugar, comprising crisps and cake, chocolate bars and cola.

School lunches, however, have to meet government nutritional standards, including one portion of fruit and one of vegetables every day, a dessert containing 50% fruit at least twice a week and a variety of fruit and vegetables – three different types of each in a week.

Other healthy foods must also be on the menu, such as oily fish at least once every three weeks, wholegrain varieties of starchy food once a week and water, low-fat milk and limited amounts of fruit juice to drink.

There are problems, though, that the new policy would have to address. Children already entitled to free school meals do not always get them. There are forms to fill in, which parents may find difficult if English is not their first language, and there are cultural barriers to signing up. Teachers may be charged with following up those who are eligible, but may be short of time. Sarah Boseley


The announcement will be met with mixed reactions from the private and state school sector.

Private schools justify their exemption from VAT and other tax breaks by offering scholarships and bursaries to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and by partnering with state schools to share facilities and teachers. They claim the imposition of a tax would force some independent schools to close, putting pupils back into the already stretched state system. According to experts, one in five households with privately educated children earn less than £50,000 a year, suggesting some may struggle to meet a 20% price hike. But only 7% of the UK’s schoolchildren are educated privately – a fifth of that number is not very high.

Private school fees have also been increasing at a faster rate than inflation, reaching an average cost of £16,119 a year. For boarding schools it’s over £30,000.Some argue middle class parents are already being priced out.

Others, including former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, support the VAT but say the money raised could be better spent because the most disadvantaged children already receive free school meals. Labour and the teachers’ union say at a time when more families are affected by cuts to benefits, and in-work poverty is soaring, the cost of school lunches can be prohibitive.

Were Labour to roll out a universal policy, they would also have to create a benchmark to measure the performance of the most disadvantaged pupils, as free school meals status is used to identify students that require assistance. Nadia Khomami


Universal free school meals, paid by higher taxes on free schools, has major political advantages as a policy for Labour. First, it is catchy and easy to understand, crucial for any policy to have cut-through with voters.

Second, it’s hard for Tories to explicitly oppose without looking heartless or out-of-touch, especially when former Tory education secretary Michael Gove has said he supports adding VAT to school fees.

Speaking in Nottinghamshire at the launch of the Conservative local election manifesto, Theresa May was pressed on whether it was a good idea – and she didn’t knock it. Instead, she dodged the question and claimed Labour “would bankrupt Britain ... Schools would find themselves in a parlous condition if Labour were in government because of the way they would be running the economy”.

If the prime minister is reticent to directly criticise a policy that quite literally takes from richer parents to pay for the less well-off, that could mean Corbyn is on to a winner.

The main criticism of the policy is that it will help middle-class kids rather than the poorest, who already receive free school meals. That may be true, but that is unlikely to have significant political cost. No party ever lost votes by being too kind to middle-class parents.

When Nick Clegg introduced free school meals for five- and six-year-olds in the coalition government, the government faced criticism for failing to anticipate the extra costs to schools because of the increased demand.

Corbyn will be hoping to head this off with the VAT announcement, but Ed Miliband – who could easily have come up with something similar himself – was relentlessly attacked for policies like the mansion tax, which commentators said were the politics of envy. Whether Corbyn can avoid a similar criticism will become clearer over the next 24 hours. Jessica Elgot


Patrick Butler, Sarah Boseley, Nadia Khomami and Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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