The next Labour government would fund the policy by introducing VAT on private school fees.
During a visit to Lancashire, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, ‘No child in the UK should go hungry at school. By charging VAT on private schools fees, Labour will make sure all primary school children, no matter what their background, get a healthy meal at school.
‘The next Labour Government will provide all primary school children with a free school meal, invest in our schools, and make sure no child is held back because of their background.’
Labour cited research by the National Centre for Social Research and the Institute for Fiscal Studies that highlights that universal access to free school meals improves pupils’ productivity and health.
Currently all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 are entitled to universal infant free school meals, a policy led by former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and introduced in September 2014 under the coalition Government.
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, said, ‘While the Conservatives offer tax giveaways to their billionaire friends, they are cutting the schools budget and threatening the health and futures of all our children by denying children the basic right of a healthy lunch at school. By investing in our education system and providing free school meals for every primary school child, we will remove the stigma attached to free school meals, and improve health and attainment for all children.’
Claire Schofield, director of policy, membership and communications at the National Day Nurseries Association, voiced concern that this policy could push up costs for parents if Labour was to charge VAT on nursery fees.
‘As nursery fees are also currently VAT exempt, we would call on the Labour Party to make sure this proposal does not have a knock-on effect on nursery fees.
‘Charging VAT on nursery fees would push up the cost for parents. We have a long-standing call for government to make childcare zero-rated for VAT to reduce the burden of cost the current situation places on nurseries.’
Labour’s announcement was welcomed by teaching unions, including Kevin Courtney, general Secretary of the NUT, who described the pledge as ‘a good idea’.
Mr Courtney said, ‘All too often teachers see the impact that hunger has on their pupils. It affects their concentration and ability to learn and their physical and mental health and wellbeing. The benefits of a healthy and nutritious school lunch are well documented and for the 4 million children living in poverty – nine pupils in every class of 30 – this may well be their main meal of the day.'
He added that the cost of school lunches could be ‘prohibitive’ and placed additional stress on families affected by benefit cuts and in-work poverty.
‘Universal free school meals would ensure that all children have a meal in the middle of the day, bringing health and educational benefits,' he said.
'It would reduce the stigma attached to free school meals and would cut down on administration for schools. While this initiative will make a big difference to the lives of pupils, all political parties need to commit to ensuring overall school budgets are increased to stem the funding crisis they are currently facing.'
Sharon Hodgson MP, shadow minister for public health and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, who has campaigned on universal free school meals for over ten years, said that the policy announcement was ‘to be strongly welcomed’.
‘Universalism is a proud tradition of the Labour Party and it is welcome that school food provision will now be a part of that important approach, continuing the important work the last Labour Government did when we introduced the universal free school meal pilots in Durham and Newham and had a fully-costed plan to roll this out to other areas post-2010, which was sadly scrapped by the incoming Tory-led Coalition Government,’ Ms Hodgson said.
‘This policy will not only allow those children who are already on free school meals to see the stigma associated with these meals eradicated, but also those children from families deemed to be working poor who will benefit from free school meals when they couldn’t before because they were just above the thresholds, and all other children who will benefit from access to a healthy meal, that will aid their learning and help complement the whole school approach to food that has been pushed for since the publication of the School Food Plan.
‘This policy announcement provides us with the space to continue our concerted campaigning for other improvements including access to breakfast clubs which have been shown to be the most beneficial intervention to support a child’s education, child holiday hunger which was first identified 111 years ago and unmet can reverse the many positive interventions seen throughout the school year, and wider household food insecurity which is a growing issue in society.’
Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham welcomed the move. ‘The evidence on the benefits for children of extending school meals is very strong. It shows children’s school results are boosted, their diet improves and parents in food poverty have more to spend on nutritious breakfast and dinners for their kids.
‘What’s more, free school meals save families much-needed money and strengthen work incentives, helping parents get better off through work. If the concern is the well-being of children in just-managing families, the case for extending entitlement is a compelling one.’
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of schools in England, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he would like to see ‘any extra cash’ being given to poorer parents, and ‘doesn't see why we should subsidise richer parents’.
He added that more money should go to initiatives such as the pupil premium.
‘I think giving more money to those parents who need to be supported is a good idea. What we have seen over the last few years is that the pupil premium has worked.’
But he also said that he had no objection to putting VAT on private school fees, ‘because the independent sector need to do a lot more. I think I have described their efforts so far as being crumbs off their table. And it is crumbs off their table. They should start sponsoring more schools in this country and doing much more.’
Mike Buchanan, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, a professional association of heads of leading independent schools, tweeted that the idea to charge VAT on private school fees was ‘based on muddled thinking, dodgy maths & myths about parents who pay twice already for edu’.
Lorraine Dearden, one of the co-authors of the report Labour referenced told the programme that the pupils who received free school meals in the pilot study showed merely ‘a slight improvement in attainment’.
‘It would be overstating it by quite a bit and in the report we said this is very, very expensive to roll out nationally - we estimated around 1 billion a year,’ Ms Dearden said.