Somewhat under the radar, given the focus on the extended Ultra-Low Emission Zone, Sadiq Khan’s other flagship policy, providing free school meals for all state primary school children in the capital, has been in operation since September. And it has been greeted by almost universal acclaim, the London Assembly economy committee heard.
“The response has been phenomenally positive,” said the programme’s director, City Hall’s head of health and wellbeing Emma Pawson, backing up her point by quoting from a letter to the Mayor from one recipient, a single mother of two working as a nurse: “I couldn’t believe it when the school let me know that the meals were for free…You cannot believe how my life has improved.”
Like the ULEZ, the policy is an ambitious expansion, adding to the government’s provision of free meals for infant age pupils, in place since 2014, to cover all primary age pupils too. Islington, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Westminster were already providing free meals for all primary school children, but the Mayor’s scheme expands that to all London state primary children not previously eligible for a free lunch. Billed by Khan as an “emergency” cost of living support measure, it will run throughout the 2023/24 academic year. Costing £135 million, it is set to save families of primary age children some £440 a year, according to City Hall estimates.
The benefits of a free meal extended beyond the financial, a panel of experts told Assembly members (AMs). “It helps ensure that all children can flourish and thrive regardless of the circumstances in which they live,” said Dr Katherine Vincent (pictured) from the schools network Reconnect London. “Fundamentally we know that children cannot learn if they are hungry.”
Research shown that, as well as encouraging learning and helping improve children’s health, universal free school meal provision, is a cost-effective “investment in the future”, with recent analysis from PwC showing a longer-term economic return of £1.71 for every pound spent on providing the service, AMs heard.
Universality was also the only way to make the school lunch experience, a “nutritional safety-net in the middle of the day”, completely “non-divisive”, rather than continuing to stigmatise poorer children through means testing, said Children’s Food Campaign coordinator Barbara Crowther. Free systems are being introduced elsewhere in the UK and overseas too, in an increasing shift towards saying “good nutrition equals good learning”, she added.
With restrictive eligibility for the national free school meals system effectively making it available for unemployed people only, the Mayor’s scheme has been helping those many families “on the poverty line or close to it” who were falling through the net, as well as the 11 per cent of eligible families currently not claiming, said Khan’s deputy chief of staff Richard Watts. “These are the policy reasons, with the very difficult set of economic circumstances people are in, why we decided this was a priority for limited public money,” he said. “There is an overwhelmingly strong evidence base for providing universal primary free school meals.”
Conservative AM and current chair of the Assembly, Andrew Boff, was a lone dissenter, suggesting that the stigma attached to receiving free school meals was overstated – “I have never heard of it happening anywhere in London” – and arguing that support should be targeted at those most in need. “Is this worth the price,” he asked, “bearing in mind that money is limited? Is it worth the costs of neglecting other programmes…in order to provide the kids of the wealthy with a subsidy?” he asked. “Surely the funds going towards subsidising wealthier families could be better redirected to supporting those families that are having severe problems.”
Charging for food was an “anomaly”, replied Crowther, in an education system otherwise free at the point of access for all. And it was not correct to characterise those who would benefit as wealthy. “It is the working poor not currently eligible who are most affected,” she said.
Liberal Democrat AM Hina Bokhari raised concerns about the future of the currently one-year only scheme, warning against creating a “cruel” ‘Oliver Twist’ situation – “‘Please sir may I have some more? No you can’t because it was only for a year.’ That’s not fair.”
Watts replied that City Hall is not yet in a position to guarantee the scheme will continue beyond 2023/24, with budget decisions dependent on the government’s 2024/25 funding arrangements for local government, expected to be announced in December and with final totals for Business Rate income not due until the New Year.
But there were grounds for optimism: “It’s fair to say the mayor would like to carry this on,” Watts added. Khan’s main rival at next year’s election, Conservative candidate Susan Hall, has also pledged to continue the programme beyond 2023/24, “until the cost of living situation improves”.
Figures released by City Hall after the meeting confirmed that 1.4 million free meals a week are now being provided to some 287,000 children across all London primary schools, a total of more than 10 million meals since September thanks to the Mayor’s “unprecedented” support.
“I’m committed to doing all I can to support children as we build a better London for all, and will continue to urge ministers to step forward with the necessary funding to ensure that all primary school children receive these vital meals on a longer-term basis,” said Khan.
X/Twitter: Charles Wright and On London. The full committee session can be viewed here. If you value On London’s coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return you get a comprehensive weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to London events. Thanks.