Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Nick Clegg: My Response To The Daily Mail On Free School Meals

The Liberal Democrats are never going to be loved in the pages of the Daily Mail: our open, liberal and progressive brand of politics tends to be at odds with their editorial worldview (to put it mildly). However, even I have been surprised at the level of criticism - much of it misleading - aimed at Liberal Democrat plans to provide free school meals to children in infants school.

This is a policy that will save a Daily Mail reader who has two children at infants' school nearly £900 a year. It will improve the health, behaviour and results of Britain's schoolchildren, across the board. It will help level the playing field, allowing poorer children to get ahead. This isn't just a good policy - it's one of the Coalition's best.

Yet the Mail doesn't like it, arguing that free school meals are a waste of money, are being rushed through and will be forced on schools before they are properly prepared.

The critique is utterly wrong. Indeed, the opposite is true - and it's important that parents and teachers get the facts.

First, the money. Far from being a waste, free school meals will deliver an extraordinary bang for the taxpayers' buck. For this investment we'll provide a healthy lunch, every day, to the four in ten children who live in poverty but are not eligible under the current rules. We'll help all children, from every background, fulfil their potential: we know that free school meals help all pupils do better in English and Maths, no matter which social group they belong to. At a time of continuing financial hardship, this policy will also save families hundreds of pounds per child, every year. By any standards, that's an impressive return.

Second, on the origins of the policy, I would love the Liberal Democrats to be able to take all the credit, but the truth is that Whitehall has been looking at this for the last five years. Free school meals were first piloted by the Department of Education and Department of Health back in 2009, a year before the Coalition was formed. These pilots found clear benefits: on average children in the pilots areas were found to be two months ahead of their peers, with the best improvements seen among children from disadvantaged homes. These findings were then backed up by the Government's School Food Plan - a report published in 2013. This isn't back of the fag packet stuff. The evidence shows that free school meals make a real difference in our classrooms.

Finally, schools will be ready. The majority are already making excellent progress, but when there are 23,500 schools in the country there will always be a few who greet change with hesitation and who feel ill-equipped. Of course there will be implementation challenges, but that is the nature of all public service reform and overcoming these hurdles is what governing is all about. If government only pursued the reforms that could be implemented tomorrow, without any preparation or work, frankly we'd never change anything at all.

The Coalition is working hand in glove with teachers and schools as we head towards the September launch. We're providing £150m for upgrades to kitchens and dining rooms, on top of a billion pounds of new money to fund the meals - money that has been welcomed by head teachers and councils around the country. We've legislated for the policy to give schools certainty that it won't be here today and gone tomorrow, but is instead a lasting change in our schools system. In the Department of Education David Laws has also set up an advice line providing individual schools with practical support and he's made it clear that any headteacher can contact him directly with their concerns.

We've also set a sensible timetable. Some schools will be able to do this very quickly: pilot areas were given just 12 weeks to implement the policy. Some schools will, of course, need more time - so we have given them 12 months.

For all these reasons, I remain absolutely convinced that this is the right policy for Britain's families and our schools. The Children's Society backs it, as does the Child Poverty Action Group, the Chief Medical Officer and Britain's major teaching and head teaching unions are behind the principle. I want us to go further in the future, extending free school meals to all primary school children when money allows. Ignore the naysayers: this is a great policy, of which the Liberal Democrats are extremely proud.

Nick Clegg MP