Should all pupils get free school lunches?

A boon for families or merely a political con?. Picture: Getty
A boon for families or merely a political con?. Picture: Getty
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As the political debate over school meals heats up, we look at both sides of the argument.

Yes

By John Dickie

The First Minister’s announcement that all children in the first three years of primary will receive a healthy school lunch is a huge boost for children and families in Edinburgh, the Lothians and across Scotland.

It is a progressive, well evidenced, direct and efficient way of supporting all families, but especially those at risk of poverty, at a time when they face extraordinary pressures as a result of tax credit and benefit cuts, soaring energy and food bills and stagnating wages.

This universal approach to free school meals has been piloted in five local authority areas in Scotland and the clear evidence has been that it boosts take-up of healthy lunches, including among those already entitled to free meals, as well as supporting family budgets by increasing disposable income – by what will amount to well over £600 a year for a family with two children in Edinburgh.

However, the universal approach also impacts positively on children’s learning experience. Evaluation of a free school meals pilot for primary school children over two years in Hull found a “significant impact in all areas of children’s schooling ... behaviour, social relationships, health and learning”. And with healthy eating and rising obesity a challenge for children of all backgrounds embedding healthy eating in the middle of the school day should have far reaching benefits for our nation’s health.

Finally, despite concerns that a universal approach is somehow benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the poor it is clear from research that universal free school meals would not waste money by benefiting better off families at the expense of those facing poverty.

• John Dickie is head of Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland

No

By Robert Oxley

When Nick Clegg ventured to Glasgow for the Lib Dem conference in September he announced that all children between the ages of five and seven would be given hot lunches at school for no charge.

It was nothing more than a gimmick. It’s not the first time a politician has acted as if money grows on trees, of course, but depressingly it appears Alex Salmond was listening.

The First Minister has decided to replicate this daft policy in Scotland, despite the fact it does nothing to help those who are struggling with the cost of living. It’s bad value for taxpayers’ money, too. Whereas previously this meal entitlement was aimed at those really in need, now everyone will get a “free” lunch. This is nothing less than a middle class welfare subsidy paid for by everyone, including those on minimum wage. It is an attempt by the political class to pretend they are doing something about the pressure on family finances by promising subsidies paid for with families’ own cash. One thing you should always beware of is a politician bearing a free lunch, because someone has to pay for it – and it’s usually you.

In England, the cost of this policy was greatly underestimated. While Nick Clegg was promising everyone giveaways he forgot to factor in the cost of the kitchens needed to cook the meals. Now politicians want to raid capital budgets – the money set aside to build and maintain schools – to cover the cost of their election gimmicks. The pilots of this policy don’t suggest it leads to any significant health benefits, so it is bizarre to see it taken up so readily in Scotland. Sadly, this is ugly gesture politics reliant on spending other people’s money to fund a referendum giveaway.

• Robert Oxley is campaign director for the TaxPayers’ Alliance