No such thing as a free lunch?

September 18, 2013

It’s safe to say that the announcement by Nick Clegg yesterday that free school meals (FSM) will be extended to all five, six and seven year olds from next year, was not met with universal acclaim. Some of course welcomed it – who wouldn’t like the idea of children being given a nutritious meal every day at no cost? And the muted reaction from Labour shows that this will likely have political benefits for the Lib Dems in the ongoing tussle over cost of living issues (where this school meals announcement sits alongside a drive to make school uniforms cheaper, which David Laws called for earlier this week).

Opposition has mostly centred on the ‘waste of money’ argument (James O’Shaughnessy: “As a parent I’ll happily pocket the £400 Lib Dem school lunch freebie. But it’s a stupid policy”) and on the ‘it’s not free, it all adds to the deficit’ argument which has been made cogently by the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Taxpayers Alliance.

Policy Exchange’s opposition to the policy comes on two fronts: efficacy, and opportunity cost.

Firstly, efficacy. The evaluation of the universal free school meal trial did find some quite strong positive benefits to attainment from more children eating school lunches, although the impact on other measures (such as Body Mass Index and consumption of fruit and vegetables) showed no benefits. And making free school meals universal will also address the issue of patchy take up of the existing entitlement – we know that around 200,000 children across England are entitled to free school meals but do not take them up, including 1/3 of eligible children in Buckinghamshire and Richmond. But nevertheless, there will still be significant deadweight costs in making such an entitlement universal, as even the richest children in the country now have their meals paid for them by the state – and all this for a mixed set of benefits based on trials in only two Local Authorities, which also included significant investment in new catering facilities and sustained engagement and promotion (not costed for in this announcement, and which may well have been significant).

Secondly, and more importantly, the opportunity cost of such a policy. Unlike some, we can see a case where, if £600m is available, allocating it to primary schools could be a good use of that money. But crucially, the decision as to what to spend this on must be left to individual Heads. Some may well see the benefit of offering free lunches – Ros McMullen, Principal of David Young Community Academy for example, provides free lunches for her sixth form “because it is needed”, and says what would really help would be “a free school meal for every full time student under 18”. But others may disagree – choosing instead to invest in wider pastoral support, or greater resources for their pupils, or even a free breakfast – which absurdly, would not be funded from this very specific policy announcement.

Our preferred option would be to put this £600m, if available, into an extension of the pupil premium, long championed by Policy Exchange. Currently worth £900 per child, an additional £600m would take this up to around £1485 per pupil in the primary phase. Alternatively, this could be placed into the early years, as recommended by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (which was commissioned by, er, the Deputy Prime Minister). Allocating that £600m amongst the 20% most deprived two and three year olds, would mean a significant premium per pre school child of around £2,240 a year. Alternatively, that money could be used to support more high quality childcare provision for those children, as we called for in our report published this week Centres of Excellence? Clearly, there could also be a mixed model, with increase to both early years and primary aged children as well.

£600m spent in this way – left up to the discretion of Heads and Early Years providers – could do real good. This measure, by contrast, suffers from a flawed extension of the principle that government knows best – and as such risks being less about Free School Meals and more about Frittering Some Money.

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