The plan to provide free school meals for all infant school pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2, and disadvantaged pupils in sixth form colleges, was beset by problems from the very start – not least when it was pointed out that many schools did not have the appropriate catering facilities to deliver the policy. The Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast spending at £620 million in 2014–15, and £755 million in 2015–16. After adjusting for inflation and forecasts for the growth in the number of primary school pupils, we estimate spending will have risen to around £830 million by 2019–20.
It is nonsense to provide the children of rich parents with “free” school meals, especially – as with all universal benefits – it requires subsidy from those on low incomes through tax. Children of parents on income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, the guaranteed element of pension credit, child tax credit or universal credit are already eligible for the meals. If a stigma exists around those children on free school meals at certain schools, it should be beholden upon teachers to think innovatively to reduce it – perhaps through a token system – and to address bullying directly. It is also unclear why that stigma is not supposed to be important in year 3, when free school meals are again means-tested.
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