The triple-lock on pensions, winter fuel payments, paying for social care costs: since the election we have heard more screeching tyres from the government’s u-turns than an average episode of Top Gear. Just on education policy alone, they have ditched everything from new grammar schools to abolishing free school meals via weakening fire safety in school buildings, and finally conceded to Labour’s demand for a “zero-cuts” funding formula for schools.
So you could be forgiven for missing the latest whiff of burning rubber as ministers wildly spun the steering wheel on yet another of their supposedly flagship education policies.
But there is another reason you might have missed it too – the government did their best to avoid actually announcing it, at least in a way that it got any attention, let alone scrutiny. Instead, they snuck out the admission days after the Commons had risen for summer recess, in a written answer to one of Kate’s parliamentary questions. Junior education minister Robert Goodwill admitted that ministers “will not be pursuing universal breakfasts for primary school children” and referred back to an ambiguous half-sentence mumbled out in a House of Lords debate by Lord Nash, not even a fully paid government minister.
This appears to be the new standard for announcements of government policy – blink and you might miss it. We can no longer expect an elected minister to make the announcement in the Commons and take questions on it.
It is, perhaps, no surprise that they would rather not discuss it. Throughout their disastrous election campaign, the Conservatives insisted that providing a hot meal for infants at school was unaffordable. Thatcher came for the milk. May wanted the entire meal. In its place they would provide free breakfasts. They were insistent that the evidence showed these were far more cost effective.
This might have been more reassuring if it had not turned out that their initial costing came to less than 7p per meal per child. You read that right: less than seven pence for each meal. A thimble of cornflakes seemed to be the offer. As we said at the time, not so much Jamie Oliver as Oliver Twist.
Even when they revised their costings, it turned out that they were assuming just one in five pupils would actually take up the offer of a free breakfast. The Tories’ policy analysis had turned out to be as meagre as the breakfast they were planning to offer. Similarly their case that free lunches are unaffordable has proven to have more holes than a bowl of Cheerios, and not only because the government has since found the cash for an extra £150 per pupil in education funding for Northern Ireland as part of their deal with the DUP.
A healthy, nutritious meal in the middle of the school day supports young children’s learning during their critically important younger years. It is also an effective way of promoting a healthy lifestyle. For some children, it may be the only hot meal that they eat that day. That is why we fought the Tories’ mean and ill thought through plans. But the Labour Party would go even further. In our fully costed manifesto – For the Many, not the Few – we pledged to provide universal free school meals for all primary school children, not just for children up to age seven, as now.
This would be funded by ending the VAT exemption on private school fees and would ensure that no child struggles with hunger when they are trying to learn. Our extra funding for schools and councils would also allow schools to do even more to help feed hungry children should they wish to, for example, providing breakfasts to pupils – as Blackpool’s Labour council, for example, has successfully piloted.
But for all that the Tories’ humiliating retreat from their own manifesto is a sign of a weak government and an effective Labour Opposition, simply forcing the government to abandon their worst policies is not enough. We need to keep fighting not just to get the next u-turn from the Tories, but for the alternative – to fund our schools and feed our children, we need a Labour government.
This piece originally appeared on the Labour List website on 2nd August 2017. Read it here.