Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he would like to see a future government roll out free schools meals for primary school children across the country, based on the evidence from his own scheme in London.
This year, City Hall provided funding to roll-out of free school meals for all state primary school students in London for the 2023/24 academic year only.
Currently, City Hall says it can only afford to provide these free meals for a single year, with the £135 million in funding coming from increased income from business rates, and helping almost 300,000 children
Jo, a teaching assistant in a South London state primary school, said that uptake has been extremely high in her school, which had a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Jo said: “They actually have to start lunch earlier because we have so many students coming through.”
Budgets for both parents and teachers are extremely tight, with her school leaving out extra milk for parents to take home with them after class.
Free school meals are already available in England for “infants” in reception and years 1 and 2. After that a household must earn £7,400 a year (after tax and not including benefits payments) for the children to be eligible.
In London, eligibility varies wildly across the boroughs, with some inner city boroughs like Camden, Islington and Tower Hamlets being over 40%, whilst others like Richmond and Kingston are less than 15%.
Several councils in London already had free schools meals programmes in place prior to City Hall’s one-off payment, including Tower Hamlets, Westminster and Southwark; all boroughs with high eligbility.
With Khan refusing to commit to funding beyond one year, what will happen in 2024 is uncertain.
Between the policy announcement in February and implementation in September, some schools had to hire extra staff and equipment. This hiring may have to be reversed in the future if funding is not sustained.
However, leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer, seen widely as the likely next Prime Minister has previously said that the policy is too expensive for the country, despite the benefits.
The National Education Union (NEU), the trade union body for school teachers said such benefits include higher attentiveness and school grades, as well as relieving financial pressure on parents to the tune of £440 a child.
Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the NEU, said: “Free School Meals for All would equip our pupils with healthy food and fuel for learning.
“People from all walks of life, many of whom have seen the benefits of Free School Meals themselves, are asking Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to show moral leadership and back the call for an extension to every primary school child.”
As part of their “No Child Left Behind” campaign, the NEU have pushed for the The Labour Party to adopt free school meals as part of its manifesto for the general election next year, which they estimate would cost in the region of £880 million.
Speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool earlier this month, Khan recollected his own experience receiving free school meals separate from other children.
Speaking to The Spectator’s Political Editor Katy Balls, Khan said: “By the time you got to the dinner hall, all your mates had sat down and were eating and you’d sit with other poor kids.
“I don’t really remember much of the food I ate, though it was obviously clearly good and I don’t remember much about schooling but I remember the embarrassment and the shame.”
Khan said: “We’ll be assessing the impact of this on families and so forth, so we can try to use this as a way of trying to persuade the government whichever colour it is to role this out across the country.”
Notably, the scheme is being rolled out in other nations in the United Kingdom already.
Scotland and Wales as devolved nations have their own policies, with both planning to phase in free schools meals for all primary students next year.
With an election due next year, English students may have a little longer to wait.
Feature image by Freepik