Plans to axe free lunches for infant school children shelved

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Plans to axe free lunches for infant school children have been shelved, the schools minister has said.

Nick Gibb said the Government would "retain the existing provision" after being pressed by shadow education secretary Angela Rayner on the Conservative proposals to scrap the lunches and instead offer a free breakfast for all primary school pupils.

He told MPs in the Commons: "We have listened very carefully to the views of the sector on the proposal to remove infant free school meals and we have decided that it is right to retain the existing provision.

"Universal infant free school meals ensure that children receive a nutritious meal during the day - it saves hard working families hundreds of pounds a year and it boosts educational achievement, especially amongst children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds."

During the campaign, the Tories said evidence showed a free school breakfast is as effective at helping children learn as a hot meal at lunch and can be delivered at a 10th of the cost, at around £60 million a year.

However, the move promoted criticism from school leaders who warned that hundreds of millions of pounds pumped into funding the free dinners would be wasted, while celebrity chef Jamie Oliver said the plans were "misguided".

The Tories cast doubt this week on whether they would continue with the manifesto pledge in an answer to a parliamentary written question, in which education minister Robert Goodwill said the Government was "reflecting on our programmes in relation to school meals".

Labour's Wes Streeting (Ilford North), who submitted the question, said he was "really disappointed" that the Government appeared to be "stalling" on the promise for free breakfasts.

Mr Streeting, a former president of the National Union of Students, said he believed free school lunches were "enormously beneficial in terms of tackling childhood obesity and promoting healthy eating amongst young people".

But he said there was evidence that primary school breakfast provision had both "health and educational benefits".

He told the Press Association on Monday: "I think it's genuinely disappointing that one of the few glimmers of light and hope in the Conservative manifesto is now up for reconsideration."

During an urgent question in the Commons on education funding, Ms Rayner asked Mr Gibb: "They promised an extra £4 billion for schools in their manifesto - is that now Government policy and how much of that is for each year?

"They were going to raise the money by scrapping infant school meals - is that still policy?

"Will he provide universal free breakfasts in primary schools, and does he finally have proper costings for this?"

Ms Rayner claimed the DUP deal made the party's leader Arlene Foster the "most expensive right-winger since Cristiano Ronaldo".

"The Education Secretary bid for extra money for schools this weekend - not at Cabinet, but on the front page of the Torygraph.

"And no wonder when Arlene Foster got a billion pounds - she must be the most expensive right-winger since Cristiano Ronaldo."

She asked Mr Gibb: "Can he confirm that was an increase in school funding of £150 per pupil in Northern Ireland, and is there any extra treasury funding for education in the rest of the country, or not?"

Mr Gibb also promised that that no school would have its budget cut as a result of the national funding formula, which aims to making funding fair for schools.

He said: "It's important that we consider how to proceed, and as outlined in our manifesto, we will make sure that no school has its budget cut as a result of the new formula and we remain committed to working with Parliament and bringing forward proposals that will command a consensus.

"We will set out our plans shortly."

There were groans on the Labour benches as Mr Gibb said no school would lose money per pupil.

"What we've said is there will be no cut in per pupil funding as a consequence of moving to the national fair funding formula," he said.

"I have acknowledged that there are cost pressures affecting schools... over a four-year period, 3.1% has already been incurred in 2016/17, there will be between 1.5% and 1.6% per year over this year and the subsequent two years.

"Those are cost pressures such as higher employers national insurance contributions, such as higher teacher pensions contributions, and the reason why there are those cost pressures, which are replicated across the public sector, is we are having to deal with a budget deficit."

It came as Tory former education minister Tim Loughton said headteachers "were facing urgent decisions now" around funding, while Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas said Mr Gibb should "stop playing games".

Former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell added: "Once again we are seeing delusion from ministers and from the members opposite.

"This discussion today and the warnings from headteachers this morning is not about the way in which the cake is being cut, it's about the size of the cake per pupil.

"That size of the cake is being reduced year on year on year because of increased costs."