When Nick Clegg announced his policy of free school meals for all children in infant schools Everyone was surprised.
And by everyone I include the Lib Dem party activists. To my knowledge this was not a Liberal Democrat policy despite all the committees, consultations and soul searching that they tie themselves up in.
What was not surprising was once this electioneering white rabbit, albeit un costed proposal, was pulled out of the hat Lib Dem members took to their blogs and Twitter to rave about it.
Now, what happened to austerity? It seems an odd policy for a coalition government so wedded to saving money. A lovely policy, of course if it can be afforded, along with higher funding for schools, maintaining children centers, youth workers and many other children focused services. What was so special about free meals given how expensive and disruptive to schools they are?
Nick Harvey put it well – and colourfully – in an interview with Huffington Post back in November:
“It was absolutely astonishing. It came from nowhere,” he exclaims. “It seemed to be part of some coalition deal where it was meant to make the Lib Dems feel better about allowing the Tories to progress their wretched married couples tax allowance. I am supposed to rejoice at this other policy that seems to me to be squandering a lot of money”.
Surely, in a time of squeezed public spending, the free lunch should be given to poor children from when they started school at five to when they finished at 18.
Why has Clegg decided to give the money to the youngest children while doing nothing for those who were older but poorer. It doesn’t make sense. If helping the poor is the ambition why give it as a universal benefit? It is going to cost nearly £800m in the first year and at least £600m every year after.
It feels like a last electoral throw of the dice from the Lib Dem leadership desperate to move the agenda off the Lib Dems own internal problems.
The recent Comprehensive Spending Review was interesting. When the scheme was announced, Mr Clegg said it would cost the Government £635m. But three months later, George Osborne admitted the cost had risen by 20 per cent to £785m.
It seems the Lib Dems had not taken into account the cost of upgrading kitchens and extending school dining rooms to cope with the extra demand.
Because this policy has popped out without much thought it had raised all sorts of other issues. The DfE has no idea which schools need money to upgrade their facilities. There are more than 16,000 primary schools in England – some big, some small, some with adequate facilities, some with none.
Because of the sudden announcement and because it needs to be in place by September there is not enough time to do an assessment of which schools and areas need money and which do
It seems this adhoc policy it is impractical in many schools. Initially, the Government made a commitment that the free meal would be a hot one. A statement on the DfE website said: “The Government will fund schools in England to provide every child in reception, year 1 and year 2 with a hot, nutritious meal at lunchtime.”
Now the Department says this is an aspiration rather than a commitment, because they’ve “discovered” that in many small schools the “dining room” doubles up as the gym and assembly hall, a space which is needed for lessons and activities.
Hot meals take longer to prepare and serve. Small children eat slowly and many schools simply cannot fit an extended lunchtime into their school day. As a result, the Department has accepted that a packed lunch that can be eaten in classrooms will now count as a “nutritious meal at lunchtime”.
How ironic, the policy even threatens to undercut Nick’s very favourite policy the Pupil Premium. How do you give extra funding to children who get free schools when all children get free school meals?
I find it incredible that the Lib Dems, with all the show of consultation on everything, have not consulted at all on this.
Where are all the vocal back benchers and party activists who are so powerful, we are told? Quiet, and why? Because they think some votes might be in it for them.
Disgraceful, selfish and a complete lack of
It is clear this was a fag packet idea put together without thought, research or consultation by Clegg, for his party conference. Strong leadership is great but you do need to be good at it.