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Free school meals will help those who need it the most
12:00pm Thursday 31st October 2013 in News
ALL parties of government in a time of austerity have tough choices to make. And Liberal Democrats, driven by our desire to create a fairer society, have time and again chosen to focus our efforts on the poorest in society.
Two government policies that demonstrate this can be found in the Lib Dem 2010 manifesto: raising the tax threshold to £10,000, putting £700 back in ordinary workers’ pockets, and the £900 given to schools for any child registered for free school meals anytime in the past six years.
As a physics teacher, I have been watching how this £900 is deployed across our area and am proud of the way schools in Oxford West and Abingdon have been spending the money. This year Cherwell School has been allocated over £250,000 extra money as a result of this policy. It is spending it on a plethora of initiatives designed specifically to help those students. From learning mentors, to extra support in the classroom, to free PE kits, this money is making a real, tangible difference.
However, not all children entitled to this money are signed up to it. In fact, across the country the census suggests that as many as 200,000 children are missing out.
Parent surveys give us two main reasons why. A number don’t realise they need to register for it. Also some parents who know they have to register feel that they don’t want a handout and so choose not to. It is these parents that the free schools meals for all five- to seven-year-olds, announced at this year’s party conference, is designed to encourage.
To test if this would work, pilots were run over two years. The results were promising. Results improved overall for all students. And importantly, given the extra money available for schools, parents were more likely to register them.
When asked why, parents reported that, having had free school meals for two years, this was something they wanted to continue. They were also less likely to see is as a stigma given that everyone in their class had it initially anyway. We have every reason to think this will work.
It may also interest you to know that behind the scenes, this policy resulted from a trade-off with the Tories. Lib Dems negotiated free school meals for five- to seven-year-olds off the back of the Tory marriage tax.
Both policies cost the same to the Exchequer. Yet at a time of austerity, at a time when we have to make tough choices, Liberal Democrats chose education and the poorest in society. Meanwhile the Tories chose a marriage tax that has no evidence base, and does not reflect the fact that the make-up of families in this country is changing. Tories choose to judge families while we choose to support them.
For parents, these free school meals are good news. They will result long term in extra money for their school; an improvement in results for all; and more immediately an average saving of more than £400 per child a year – a welcome financial boost to more than 22,000 families in Oxfordshire.
Within the national context, this and other policies like raising the income tax threshold demonstrate where our values as a party lie: to create a fairer society and a stronger economy that enables anyone, whatever their background, to get on in life. It is what we fight for now and what I would keep fighting for as a Member of Parliament. And I hope you agree: it’s an aim worth fighting for.
- As part of the announcement made by Nick Clegg in September, all five- to seven-year-old pupils in state schools in England will receive free school meals from September next year. The full financial detail of how the scheme will be funded is not expected to be unveiled until the Autumn Statement on December 4.
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