“Together, we’ll keep pushing until every child can have a hot school dinner, every day.”
No Child Left Behind, the campaign for all primary school children to have free school meals, which is supported by the National Education Union (NEU) and backed by over 200 other organisations, is characterised by its energy and purpose. This month sees campaigners increasing their calls for free school meals in the UK, with a week of action planned from Saturday June 24th to Friday June 30th. The week is a mixture of national coordinated action, local activities and meetings with the press. Each day will focus on a different aspect of why free school meals are so important for children and young people, from health and education to inequality and food, covering a range of different perspectives and arguments for extending free school meals to every child in primary school. On Thursday June 28th, a letter will be handed in to 10 Downing Street. The event will begin outside Number 10 at 11 a.m., with speeches starting from 11.15 a.m. The letter will be delivered at midday. This will be followed by a march to Parliament Square for final speeches and a photo opportunity, which will finish around 1 p.m. The campaign is growing and, as support increases, it becomes more likely that the politicians will take note, realise that this is not only an extremely popular measure but that it is urgent to address the levels of child poverty that mean more and more children go to school hungry and lose out on aspects of their education as a result. The campaign is particularly important at the moment as the price of school meals is set to rise.
In a statement earlier this year, the outgoing Joint General Secretary of the NEU, Kevin Courtney, said: “All children deserve a hot, healthy meal each day to be able to learn and access the education they are entitled to. Food is as important to learning as books, pens or a chair to sit on. The benefits of offering school food as a universal provision far outweigh the costs, and the best way to ensure that no child goes hungry is to offer free school meals for all.”
According to 2021/2022 figures, 4.2 million (one in three) children are growing up in poverty. Children living with a disabled parent, children from one-parent families and Black families are disproportionately affected. More than half a million children dropped below the poverty line last year. Particularly high concentrations of child poverty exist in some areas, such as the North East, Birmingham and parts of London. This shameful level of unnecessary deprivation exists in the sixth richest country in the world. Whilst in many areas, schools (including individual teachers), communities and local councils are trying to alleviate the effects of poverty and feed children who arrive in school hungry, there is an appalling absence of government support.
There is provision for free school meals for children in years one and two and, for older children, they are provided for the poorest families. At the moment 22.5% of children (1.9 million) are eligible. However, the result of this means-testing is that not all children from low-income families are entitled to free school meals and not all families are aware that they are eligible. Some avoid claiming them because of the stigma attached.
Previous pilots providing free school dinners have demonstrated that pupils’ achievements in the classroom were raised, with children who took part making four to eight weeks’ greater progress over two years than others who did not take part in the pilot. Furthermore, there was a higher uptake of free school meals among all children from all families, and there were social and behavioural advantages, as children enjoyed sitting and eating meals with their friends and teachers, without the sense of embarrassment that free school meals can create.
Meanwhile the Welsh Government is rolling out free school meals and hopefully Scotland will do the same, although it is thought that Nicola Sturgeon gave the scheme more support than Humza Yusaf may give. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has announced a £130 million emergency scheme to introduce universal free school meals in London primary schools for the year 2023/2024, with many Londoners hoping that this provision will be extended.
The health, educational achievement and future of many children depend on the introduction of this scheme throughout the country. We can only hope that Rishi Sunak and his fellow Tories somehow, despite their usual disgraceful priorities, can see the common sense and justice in implementing this provision. Decent citizens in this country do not want to see children going hungry and their lives blighted by poverty. In a recent survey over two-thirds of respondents supported free school meals for all primary age children. We can all lend our voices to support No Child Left Behind. They remain inspirationally positive: “When we work together, there’s nothing we can’t achieve.”