21 February 2023

Sadiq Khan’s free school meals plans are hard to swallow


If you were a politician with a one-off £130m windfall to spend on kids and schools, what would you spend it on?

Perhaps bursaries to get more teachers into shortage subjects like maths and science? Or grants for young people making the transition from the care system to independent adulthood? Maybe catch-up tuition for kids still behind post-Covid? Or how about an army of family support workers to get persistent truants back to school?

If you’re Sadiq Khan however, you choose to blow it on a free school lunch every day for every single kid at every state primary school in London for a year.

Whether a child’s parents are rich or poor, work in a supermarket or investment bank, live in Richmond or Tower Hamlets – from September they’ll get a free lunch. 

Khan says he’s doing it so that ‘parents aren’t worrying about how they’re going to feed their children’ by guaranteeing ‘every primary school student a healthy, nutritious meal – meaning they don’t go hungry in the classroom and can better concentrate on their studies’.

I’m sure that the mayoral and other elections bang in the middle of the pilot didn’t influence his thinking – heaven forbid. I don’t think for a moment that Khan or Labour will run a ‘beware the sandwich snatchers’ campaign. Definitely not.

Putting aside cynical motivations though, there are major problems with universal free school meals.

First of all there is little evidence that it raises pupil attainment or improves the health of children – two of the main arguments put forward by its advocates. Where positive changes were seen in previous pilots, it was not possible to say if these were due to universality or other things like healthy eating promotions.

Secondly, like any universal benefit, the policy is a hand-out to families who have no difficulty providing for their kids, as well as those who do.

As detailed in the Mayor’s own press release, every kid in Reception through to Year 2 is already eligible for a free lunch, plus about 30% of those in Years 3 to 6. He’s funding food for the remaining 270,000 kids who aren’t eligible, and while some of those will be struggling to get by, most will not. Let’s not forget that, although there is immense deprivation in the capital, it’s also the fourth wealthiest city in the world based on the staggering number of millionaires who call it home. The deadweight loss is huge.

Equally importantly, this policy is a total nightmare for schools to administer and finance. The cash per meal being given won’t actually cover the cost to schools, so they’ll have to find the difference out of their existing budgets. One estimate has this at £39m – I’m not sure how popular that will be, given that budgets are already under strain.

In addition, many schools won’t have kitchen and dining facilities that can cope with loads more kids taking up meals at the same time. It just means more disruption to the school day, which is never ideal, especially right now.

It’s not like Khan is unaware of these issues – they’re exactly what were experienced when the Liberal Democrats pushed through ‘universal infant free school meals’ during the coalition era. 

Don’t get me wrong – there is a genuine debate to be had about making sure kids are fed properly all year round: who is responsible for this, and how it’s funded. Marcus Rashford made it a front page issue during the pandemic, and it’s not going away. But we should be asking if it’s really fair to ask taxpayers to fork out for children from wealthy households.

If Khan really wanted to get the biggest bang for his bucks he’d have focused the cash on families who really are struggling but don’t qualify for free school meals. These could be identified by Headteachers, or by the DWP through the Universal Credit system.

And being fewer in number, he could have funded it properly to cover the full cost and still had cash left to spend on other interventions with better returns on investment, like one-to-one tuition or teaching bursaries.

So whilst it’ll be nice for the pupils from wealthy London families when they sit down for their free school meals this autumn, the missed opportunities for less advantaged kids make it hard to swallow. There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.