Jack Brown: Universalism, practicalities and politics – meanings of the Mayor’s free school meals scheme

Jack Brown: Universalism, practicalities and politics – meanings of the Mayor’s free school meals scheme

This week has seen the introduction of free meals for all children at state primary schools in London. Given the noise over the Ultra-Low Emission Zone expansion, you are forgiven if you’ve missed it. But this is a significant development.

It puts into effect Sadiq Khan’s pledge to provide a one-year “emergency programme” of funding to help with the ongoing cost of living crisis. Over a quarter of a million London children will now receive a healthy school meal without being charged for it. The Mayor’s office claims this will save families over £440 per child over the course of the academic year. Jamie Oliver likes it too.

Feeding school children is the sort of thing London-wide municipal government used to do. And it was popular.

Jerry White’s wonderful book London in the 20th Century tells of how a Conservative London County Council administration elected in 1907 cancelled school meal funding for poor children as part of an economy drive. A year later, after the voluntary sector failed to step in and replace this lost offering as had been hoped, the LCC was forced to reinstate the scheme. Mayor Khan’s political opponents don’t want to make the same mistake. His Tory rival Susan Hall has said she would keep the scheme going for “as long as required” if elected next year.

At the same time, there is a sense in which the Mayor is plugging the gaps in existing incomplete and uneven programmes. Central government has been paying for free school meals for all Key Stage 1 children – Reception class, Year 1 and Year 2 – since September 2014, as well as providing for all school children whose parents are entitled to certain means-tested benefits, including (since 2018) households on Universal Credit whose income falls below £7,400 a year.

But research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has shown just how many families on Universal Credit still do not quality for free school meals, and how hard this hits them. And several boroughs already provide free school meals for all their primary school children. Others, such as Camden, have announced they will make the scale of provision enabled by the Mayor permanent after his funding ends. Tower Hamlets has announced plans to extend its existing universal offer for primary schools to its secondary schools as well. And in Westminster, the Mayor’s additional funds will be used to enlarge its existing primary school scheme to encompass early years settings and secondary children aged 11-14.

Encouraged by the Mayor, is the capital moving towards making access to free school meals a universal entitlement? There is an interesting wider debate about the issue. The IFS research found that, at a national level, it would cost roughly the same amount to extend free school meals to primary and secondary school children for all households on Universal Credit as it would to all primary school children regardless of income. Khan, though, has elected to help only London households with primary school-age children, including the most affluent.

Some argue that universalism is essential for building a sense of collective buy-in to state provision across society. But this is somewhat complicated by the highly political nature of Khan’s offer – while only some citizens have been receiving help from Conservative national government, many others will now, quite pointedly, receive it from the Labour Mayor.

Ensuring all children qualify for free school meals would also help end the stigma some face – the indignity of being visibly separated from their peers by their family’s wealth. That said, you could forgive parents who already qualify for assistance not celebrating too wildly over seeing £135 million spent on ensuring that their better-off peers get the same.

Implementation of the Mayor’s scheme is not entirely straightforward either. School meal costs vary quite significantly across London, and some boroughs have said that Khan’s funding, whilst welcome and comparatively generous, will not cover the additional costs it has imposed on them.

For example, the Mayor’s funding does not pay for investing in new facilities, equipment or staff – it only contributes to the cost of the meals themselves. So some of London’s schools and local authorities are having to find any extra money they have needed. And when the one-year programme runs out, it is not certain that they will be able to find the cash to keep additional facilities in use. There has also been a concern that pupil premium funding will be lost.

None of these issues seem insurmountable, yet they illustrate the complex reality of making good on a relatively simple and apparently straightforward pledge. And how will the free school meals programme be received by Londoners at large?

It is interesting to compare its possible electoral impact with that of the ULEZ expansion. Both could be described as public health policies, even though City Hall has framed the meals scheme primarily as a cost-of-living measure. But only a small percentage of Londoners will actually pay the ULEZ daily charge, and even that number is expected to fall. The Mayor therefore surely hopes that the noise about the ULEZ will decrease and the benefits of free school meals will be felt by many more.

That said, much of the outrage over the ULEZ has been from people who are not directly affected by the policy. It seems unlikely that loud expressions of delight over the Mayor’s free school meals programme will be quite as universal.

Jack Brown is a lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. X/Twitter: Jack Brown and On London. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s Substack.

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