Belfast Telegraph

Giving kids free school meals is a no-brainer

By Janet Street Porter

More than two years ago I begged the Government to make school dinners compulsory for all and to ban packed lunches.

Since 2008, I've been urging politicians to make cookery compulsory in primary schools and to involve children in the preparation and serving of food as a way of teaching them social skills.

There has been a television series and a huge campaign by Jamie Oliver, as well as a review of school dinners conducted by Henry Dimbleby and co.

As we've seen with Mary Portas' stuttering campaign to revive our ailing high streets, politicians just love initiating a big 'review' (like they did with hospital food) into a headline-grabbing area of public concern and then, when the work is done (usually by high-profile advisers for nothing) and well-researched proposals are made, they shove the document into a Whitehall filing cabinet marked 'pending' and claim poverty.

Last week, school dinners hit the headlines again when Nick Clegg announced at the Lib Dem conference that from September 2015 every child in the country under eight, regardless of family income, would receive a free hot school lunch – at a cost of around £600m.

Critics say that the £400 a year which each family will save per child should be limited to the poorest – why help middle-class and wealthy families when child benefit is being cut?

One Tory complained that this was a "deal done on the back of a fag packet", as it emerged that Lib Dems had objected to free school meals proposed by councils in several of their MPs' constituencies (Southwark, Islington and Hull). Apparently, in the wheeling and dealing that always takes place before party conferences, the Tories and Lib Dems agreed that if David Cameron got his marriage tax allowance (which Lib Dems oppose and will cost the Treasury around £500m), they could announce free school meals. (Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has just announced he will 'ban' the 'bedroom tax' the minute he arrives in Downing Street – another shameless bit of headline-grabbing designed to chime with his arrival at conference.)

Tax allowances for married couples and free school meals are no-brainers. What's scandalous is that they are being actioned only because of some macho cabal in a Whitehall back room, to secure flattering news coverage for parties that have lost their way and are failing to connect with the public. Who is going to train the staff, equip the kitchens, find the larger dining rooms and police this operation, all within 11 months? And why should kids stop needing a hot meal when they turn eight?

In the areas where free meals have been piloted pupils have been, on average, two months ahead in their work. Results from this summer's national tests, meanwhile, have shown a drop in the reading levels of 11-year-olds and that a quarter would not pass Michael Gove's new tests in spelling and grammar.

Surely nutrition is a key factor in achieving literacy through improved concentration.

It's disgusting our kids' well-being is in the hands of horse-trading non-entities who (as Damian McBride's memoirs show only too clearly) will promise anything to stay in power.

'Surely nutrition is a key factor in achieving literacy through improved concentration'

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