Free school meals or breakfast clubs? Child hunger in England

by Stacey Dingwall

For a lot of us, the removal of the turkey twizzler was the biggest school meals-related political upset of the last decade. However, during the recent election campaign another, more serious, row emerged: over the provision of universal free school meals to English children in Reception through to Year 2.

Manifesto proposals

The proposal to scrap the policy introduced by the coalition government in 2014 was one of the Conservative manifesto proposals that didn’t make it to the Queen’s Speech. Schools minister Nick Gibb confirmed that the policy had been ditched at the start of this month, stating that existing provision would be retained following the government having “carefully listened” to parents.

In their manifesto, the Labour party promised to extend universal provision to all primary school aged children, to be funded by introducing VAT on private school fees.

Is FSM for all viable?

Financially, Labour’s proposal was deemed to be viable, in theory at least. Charging VAT on private school fees was calculated to be worth just over £1.5bn a year, provided all pupils were paying a full fee. The IFS have suggested that extending provision to all primary pupils would cost in the region of £950m annually.

In 2012 the IFS, in partnership with NatCen, carried out an evaluation of a pilot study which offered free school meals to all Year 6 pupils in Newham and Durham. The evaluation found that the pupils made around two months’ additional progress over a two-year period compared to similar children in other areas, although it wasn’t able to definitively identify how this progress was made – i.e. it was unable to conclude that the provision of free school meals was the reason.

Breakfast clubs

Discussing the evaluation findings within the context of the 2017 manifesto proposals, the IFS highlighted findings from other research they’ve carried out into breakfast clubs.  This is something we’ve discussed before on the blog: our 2015 post highlighted a range of evidence that school breakfast clubs have a positive impact on children’s academic performance. The IFS study looked at one of the schemes, Magic Breakfast, and found that improvements in pupil performance were “likely to be the result of the content or context of the school breakfasts”.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to provide free breakfasts in place of universal free lunch provision. This was dismissed as “not comparable” by parents however, and described by some in the education sector as merely a cost-cutting exercise (that had not in fact been costed correctly) rather than a drive to boost attainment.

Child hunger in 2017

The reason why so many were critical of the proposal to remove the universal entitlement to free school meals is that for some children, it’s the only nourishment they’ll receive all day. Just because a child is entitled to a free lunch doesn’t mean they’ll claim it – a range of evidence has highlighted the stigma children can be exposed to if meals aren’t free for all. Extending provision to all has been found to be the best way of helping those who need it most, rather than singling them out.

In 2017, it’s shameful that children in a developed country are still suffering from hunger. As new figures from the Trussell Trust reveal that the already shocking levels of reliance on foodbanks increases even more during school holidays, it’s clear that any policy which risks making the situation for already vulnerable children even worse needs to be abandoned.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Socitm deliberates: what’s the future for local government digital services?

By Steven McGinty

Today, the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) are having their 28th annual Spring Conference. The event provides business and technology leaders from across the public sector with the opportunity to discuss the future of government digital services.

A key issue up for debate is the development of ‘local public services as a platform’. This is based on the idea of ‘government as a platform’, a UK government policy which aims to provide:

“a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services”

The most high profile example of government as a platform is the use of a single website to provide digital services, known as GOV.UK. This was introduced by Government Digital Service (GDS), the organisation responsible for the digital transformation of central government services. It’s believed that the use of GOV.UK has led to more than £60m in savings, simply from replacing the DirectGov and Business Link websites.

How could local public services as a platform work?

To date, there have been two main approaches put forward. The first, proposed by Richard Copley, head of information and communications technologies (ICT) at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, involves the creation of a Local Government Digital Service (LDGS). This would oversee the development of a single website for local government services, removing the need for individual council websites. It’s argued that this would only cost each council £3,000 per year, allowing local councils to make substantial savings.

However, Socitm have rejected the idea of a single website for local services. They argue that a single website:

‘..ignores the independence of local authorities as organisations that have different democratic mandates and priorities… local government is exactly that. Local requirements, whether of geography, size, demographics or politics, must continue to drive council websites.’

Instead, Socitm suggests the use of a common platform for sharing local government tools and applications. This would mean that local government could promote and share examples of best practice. However, they do acknowledge that incentives would need to be introduced to encourage this.

Is there political support for extending government as a platform into local government?

There was certainly intent by the Conservative government to have this happen. Ed Vaisey, UK minister for culture and the digital economy, is an advocate of Richard Copley’s view of a ‘local government digital service’ (LGDS). He explains that having local government on one website is an ‘ambition’ and emphasises that it has the potential to save billions of pounds by providing a gateway, similar to GOV.UK, for local government services.

Similarly, George Osborne made the increased use of digital services a major theme of the last Budget. For example, the Chancellor has expanded the remit of the Government Digital Service (GDS), to include collaborating with local councils to develop ‘customer-focussed, digitally-enabled, efficient local services’.

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah has also been involved in the debate. Last year, she was keen to see the GDS support the work of local councils, which indicates that there may be some agreement with the Conservative Party. Recently, she expanded on her view, explaining that if the GDS were to work with local councils, they should focus on major areas such as social care and benefits.

At the moment, the future of local government services is uncertain. However, it’s important that we continue to debate the issue in order to find solutions that will provide real value for taxpayers, as well as provide better public services.


Further reading

A local crisis? Local authorities and the housing crisis

Miniature red and green houses against a white background.By Alex Addyman

England needs to provide between 200,000 and 250,000 homes each year to meet the current housing shortage. The role of local authorities in meeting this shortfall was recognised in the Autumn Statement and has been progressed through some recent policy initiatives. This blog considers some of these initiatives and questions whether local authorities have the capacity to deliver them. Continue reading

Government’s free schools programme comes under fire again

free school

By Stacey Dingwall

The government’s already controversial free schools programme in England ran into trouble again this week, with the publication of an Ofsted inspection report on Greenwich Free School which found that “too few students make good progress across the different subjects taught in the school”, alongside Labour Party analysis which suggests that 70% of the schools are still not full two years after opening. Continue reading