Demanding free school meals in Islington

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Islington Labour recently unveiled a policy proposal which has confuddled the Liberal Democrat council, has been criticised by the local branch of the Taxpayer’s Alliance (aka Miserable Selfish Gits for Greed), and has deeply enthused Labourites such as myself. The political food fight that has erupted from Labour’s suggestion that Islington’s children under the age of 11 be provided with free school meals means that voters should be able to clearly see the great difference in outlook between the two main parties in the borough. Issues like this serve to remind us just what is at stake in local politics.

Whether it is due to the rise of the TV celebrity chef or the rise in UK obesity levels, society seems to be becoming increasingly aware of the importance of food. Those who help look after themselves by eating properly will live longer and healthier lives (probably! Stubborn people tend to use anecdontal evidence refering to their colleague’s chain-smoking centenarian granny or their neighbour’s vegan gym-attending friend who had a heart attack to try to undermine the recommendations of health experts).

If the purpose of the education system is to equip our nation’s youth with the knowledge and skills that will assist them in future years then surely school meals can be looked upon a chance to encourage practical learning about food and diet. We already accept that education is not something necessarily restricted to sitting in a class room – hence lessons in sport, music, drama. The school canteen should therefore also be included as an integral part of the educational environment.

Numerous bodies and organisations such as the School Food Trust insist that providing decent food to pupils at meal times can improve their behaviour, their academic performance, and the sense of community in a school. On top of this, free school meals for everyone would instantly remove the serious problem of the social stigma attached to being currently eligible for them.

The council is suggesting that this a financially frivolous proposal and asks why the children of the rich should be entitled to subsidised meals. Nick Clegg has even generously offered his opinion on the issue. A number of bizzare things came out of Clegg’s mouth when he visited Islington last week – firstly in reference to James Kempton, the Lib Dem leader of the council, he said “statues will be chiselled and erected to James in deades to come” and secondly after dismissing Labour’s free school meals proposal he said “for me the priority is the pupil premium, giving the same individual allocation of money to children from the most deprived backgrounds as the children who go to fee-paying schools”. Perhaps the Kempton statues will be paid for by the same funds which helped him pay his way whilst on a leadership course in America. And funding state school pupils at the same level as those in private schools is a target Gordon Brown set himself and the government a few years ago now.

Some may initially agree with the Lib Dem excuse that free school meals for all pupils – rich and poor – doesn’t make sense from an economic or a social justice perspective. The Lib Dem councillors are apparently instead hinting that they would look at a moderate rise in the eligibility level, which may satisfy some. Not I. Targeted benefits are appropriate in some situations but when it comes to free school meals – with the aforementioned potential for benefits in health, behaviour, sense of community and in removing the current stigma – I strongly believe these should be a universal entitlement.

An additional argument for making school meals free for every primary school pupil, regardless of background, is of course that once this policy is implemented it will soon become entrenched as a social expectation. Just as the NHS has more-or-less been able to stay true to its egalitarian founding principles for over 60 years because so many Britons have an interest in maintaining it, universal benefits are harder for stingy cost-cutting regimes, of whatever political persuasion, to axe.

Perhaps the Lib Dems are dragging their feet because Labour is calling for the policy to be funded by cuts in the amount paid to councillors (amongst the most generous of any local authority in the country) and in the Town Hall’s PR budget. There may also be a chance of assistance from central government.

It is an unfortunate fact, however, that despite the far-reaching consequences of free school meals, it is a fairly unassuming, ideologically-modest policy suggestion. Students are not going to be staging sit-ins at universities calling for their introduction. Free school meals do not feature in any radical group’s transitional demands, as far as I’m aware. And no-one’s invited me to any multi-million member facebook groups relating to the subject.

Here in the People’s Republic of Islington when we’re not drinking a nice glass of chardonnay at a dinner party whilst complaining about how New Labour has betrayed our socialist ideals or fretting about what the drop in house prices will mean for our second homes in the countryside, some of us are concerned by the fact that our borough is the fourth most deprived in London and has a lamentably high level of child poverty. Policies such as this one could genuinely help many families struggling to make ends meet in these difficult times.

I’m not claiming it is perfect as a proposal. In my ideal world every school pupil – secondary as well as primary – would be receiving free school meals. On top of this they would be compulsory, for following the logic of my earlier arguments about education encompassing children’s relationship with food, meal times would be considered part of the school curriculum. Free school meals is something that Labour should have rolled out nationally years ago.

But this is still a bold progressive idea that gets two thumbs up from me. I will be out leafletting and doorknocking over this weekend and the next, so I’m looking forward to finding out what other people make of it.

Captain Jako

p.s why not visit Islington Labour’s website here

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One Response to “Demanding free school meals in Islington”

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