Free school meals and supervised tooth brushing sound appealing but Britain will come to regret eroding the norm of parental responsibility, writes Adam Hawksbee
Sadiq Khan rarely receives positive headlines, so the mayor will have been delighted with recent praise for his commitment to universal free school meals. A new study finds that when all kids get a free lunch from primary schools it cuts obesity, improves attainment and reduces stigma for poorer pupils. What’s not to like?
But there’s a problem with this brand of “evidence-based policy”. Studies looking at government interventions in isolation often ignore their broader societal impacts. Each time responsibility shifts from the individual or families to the state, it’s easy to focus on the specific outcomes that can be measured instead of the eroded norms that can’t. We should pause before we further undermine parental responsibility.
First, some facts about universal free school meals. Two in five English state school children are already entitled to free school meals – either because they are from low income families so qualify for means-tested support, or because they are in reception, year 1 or year 2. There is a strong case for expanding eligibility for means-tested free school meals so vulnerable children don’t fall through the cracks. Over two thirds of pupils whose families are on Universal Credit do not qualify for free school meals under the current income cap.
Khan has gone much further, expanding free lunches to all primary school pupils regardless of household income. Other Labour politicians, including work and pensions committee chair Stephen Timms, have called for this to be rolled out across England. Some campaigners, including the National Education Union, have even argued for universal free school meals to be introduced across all secondary schools as well.
These politicians and campaigners are well intentioned – and it’s true that when schools take responsibility for feeding middle-class children, some of them receive a healthier meal or are prevented from skipping lunch altogether. Equally, if we introduce supervised tooth brushing in primary schools, as the Labour Party has suggested, it’s likely that studies will find better dental health in some of our kids. Or that if nurseries took on responsibility for potty training children, as former Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman recommended, more would be school ready.
Each of these policies might make sense on their own. But together they fundamentally shift the burden from parents and families to schools and the state. Undermining the norm of parental responsibility has very real consequences. A King’s College London study found that the proportion of Brits who think that it was important for children to learn obedience at home has fallen from 50 per cent in 1998 to just 11 per cent today – lower than all but four other countries. The underperformance of white working class students and the relative success of ethnic minority students is driven by one common cause: parents, and their attitudes to discipline and education.
This is how we have ended up with an ever-expanding state. Not through a big bang, but a steady shift away from the little platoons of families and communities towards the government. The price tag for rolling out universal free school meals nationally is £1bn for primary schools and a further £1.5bn for secondary – this, at a time when existing services are struggling with rising demand. When challenged about London’s skyrocketing crime rates, Sadiq Khan has complained about underfunding of the Met Police by up to £240m. Yet his universal free school meals policy costs Londoners £140m a year, with his website proudly boasting of the £1,000 subsidy for middle class parents.
So beware the next study that calls for just one more state programme to solve a specific policy problem, or the report that recommends a quick technical fix for a broader social ill. Any projected savings are likely to make us penny rich, but pound poor. The UK desperately needs a broader debate about personal responsibility. For our political leaders, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.