I attended a lecture by David Laws MP, English Minister for Schools, on Wednesday hosted by the National Education Trust.
He was introduced with an excerpt from his book ’22 days in May’, which described the negotiations leading up to the Coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – a significant achievement of this for the latter party was the ‘pupil premium’, which would give extra funding to state schools for all children receiving free school meals – the aim being to encourage social mobility by investing more in the education of those who most need it.
In his speech, the Minister emphasised the need for school heads and governors to ensure that the pupil premium funding they receive is targeted properly – the problem is that many schools don’t want to single out students just because they come from poorer backgrounds – and more importantly, their parents often don’t claim free school meals for the same reason. Using other social deprivation indicators such as IDACI scores and ranks or POLAR classification would better ensure genuine need is tackled by schools. However it still wouldn’t solve the issue of many schools selecting students by entrance exam, religion or ability of their parents to pay, all of which can impact on social mobility.
In Finland, a country cited as being one of the best educationally in the world, as well as having a more even social mix than England in a universal state system of schools, all children get free and healthy school meals. This is because as a community the Finns value very highly the quality of nutritional provision for their future generations in a harsh winter climate. Older children will even encourage younger ones to eat properly. Could this be yet another reason why they do so well as a nation in PISA tests, even though they don’t list it themselves? There is certainly growing evidence that better nutrition links to better student outcomes. The London Borough of Islington offers free school meals to all its primary school children and the Children’s Society has recently published a report suggesting that access to free school meals should be greatly extended in England. Moreover, new style academies and free schools are currently allowed to opt out of required minimum food standards for state schools.
As it happens, we are in the midst of yet another school food review here in England. Jamie Oliver got the whole debate going with a TV series on how to improve school dinners. Now we have another 2 restaurant chain owners taking forward his mantle. And today is International School Meals Day in the UK and the USA, hence the hashtag #ISMD2013 at the top of this post. Here is an opportunity to push for change.
I ask the current school food reviewers to help ensure there is an offer of good quality, free school meals as an entitlement to all state-educated primary children in England.
To resource this we should collectively:
a) ask all parents/carers of state school children i) to declare whether they want to use the entitlement for their child, and assuming they do, ii) to contribute as much as they can to the cost of the meal.
b) ask those financially healthy private schools to contribute in kind by sharing their catering resources/staff/expertise with groups of state-funded schools. They are already under scrutiny, being criticised for not adapting to hard times, so this would be a good public relations exercise for many of them.
c) ensure that catering in state schools is undertaken by adequately trained and rewarded staff. If this is contracted out, then it should be to social enterprises where the size of the profit margin should NOT be the main motivation for producing a nutritious meal for children.
Finally, it will be important to evaluate the impact of such a policy – consider Islington a trial and extend it to other London Boroughs using control groups. This way we can ensure that the outcomes will lead to real benefits for children and their education, which is surely what we all want?