Forget free school meals, poor kids need free uniforms

Felicity Hannah
Food Shortage Homeless
Food Shortage Homeless

All state-educated children aged between five and seven will now receive a free hot meal at lunchtime. This is the new £1 billion scheme that could save parents around £400 a year per child, and which has been described by Nick Clegg as "one of the most progressive changes to our school system for a long time".

There have been plenty of criticisms of the scheme, including from schools that don't have the space to provide such a meal and have to start the first lunchtime sitting at 10:30am to get all the kids through.

But I can think of a worse criticism - I believe this scheme is designed to win votes and not help the poorest children. After all, the very poorest kids already received free school meals so surely we could spend £1 billion in a more targeted way?

You might argue that this scheme means that poorer kids won't feel embarrassed at claiming free meals. However, most school canteens already use smart cards that are charged with credit, so it's already hard to tell which youngsters are receiving free meals and whose parents are paying.

School dinners are a distraction from the real, socially-crippling inequality in our schools. Charities giving evidence to the Children's Commission on Poverty (an inquiry that will report to the government in the next few weeks) have warned that many poorer parents cannot afford to pay for school trips, school uniforms, after-school clubs and musical instruments.

elementary students sitting in...
elementary students sitting in...

These are the tangible assets that can be easily noticed, allowing children to be singled out for bullying and social exclusion.

Parents have reported being driven into the arms of doorstep lenders to afford the basics their children need, which increases the financial pressure on these households even more.

If children are in the wrong school uniform, or don't have enough shirts to change their dirty one; if they can't afford a scientific calculator or food for Home Ec class; if they can't pay to go on a day trip – these are daily humiliations that risk damaging children's educational chances and perpetuating their poverty.

You might argue that this scheme will help those families who do not qualify for free school meals but who are managing on very tight budgets. Clearly there's a benefit to ensuring those children have a healthy hot meal to help them concentrate during the school day. But we could achieve that by raising the bar for free school meals; for example, providing them to families receiving tax credits.

Why are we spending money feeding children who are driven to school in their family's BMW? How can we justify feeding them for free using money that could buy other children hope and opportunity?

If we are to offer equal opportunities to the nation's children, then we clearly have to take steps to level the school playing field. Instead, we are cutting funding to vital services.

For example, Sure Start children's centres have played an important role in helping vulnerable families access greater opportunities for their pre-schoolers, yet their budgets are being slashed from £3 billion a year to £1.5 billion by 2015.

By the age of three, poorer children are estimated to be an average of nine months behind children from wealthier backgrounds.

According to the Department for Education's own statistics, by the end of primary school the poorest kids are estimated to be almost three terms behind their more affluent peers. With inequality that shocking, it makes sense to set aside additional funding for schools. But it makes no sense at all to spend that money on a universal benefit.

We need to ensure that free school meals are provided to all who need them, and that poorer kids are equipped with the right uniform, stationary and tools to achieve their potential. Buying two million kids lunch is about winning votes, not raising equality – and in a time of austerity that is unforgivable.

Have your say: is the new scheme a good or a bad idea? How would you tackle childhood inequality? Is the writer right? Share your thoughts using the comments below.

Nick Clegg: Free School Meals Will Go Ahead
Nick Clegg: Free School Meals Will Go Ahead

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