Nick Clegg’s grandstanding attempt to be the great provider of free meals to the nation’s school-children is fast unravelling.
As the school term begins, head-teachers, LEAs and even sharp nine-year-olds are rounding on him for this ‘on the back of a fag packet’ plan.
It was exactly a year ago that Clegg announced free school meals for all children at infant schools starting this September. This commitment marked the beginning of the end of Michael Gove’s reign at the Department of Education. Leaked emails since revealed that the Coalition was at war from the start over this policy; a policy described by Dominic Cummings, Mr Gove’s former adviser, as dumb and a bad gimmick.
Could and should it be have been funded? In a nutshell, the answer is a categorical No.
Its viability was in question from day one. Within months a BBC Daily Politics investigation revealed that some 2,700 schools wouldn’t be equipped to start serving hot school meals on time, in the absence of kitchens or adequate funding. Clegg’s vaunted £1 billion was not going to be enough.
Undaunted Clegg proceeded to trample over every objection along his way. It would save families £400 a year, he claimed, and have a dramatic educational impact on the poorest children. He forced Gove to back down; then humiliated him into writing a cringing retraction in The Times with his Lib Dem junior, David Laws.
But by the end of the summer term the plan was in tatters. Over the holidays, council leaders warned that the time children spent in lessons would have to be cut to accommodate a proper lunch for every pupil aged four-to-seven; that a shortage of dining hall space would force some primary schools to requisition classrooms as temporary canteens; and that the Government’s £150m funding package to carry out necessary improvements to primary school kitchens was not enough.
Yet all this disruption was on the back of the flimsiest of evidence. Pupils in the areas piloted by the Government apparently had made between four and eight weeks better progress at key stages one and two. This vague and barely credible finding is all Clegg’s expensive pilot study could drum up to justify his billion pound fiasco.
‘Really?’ a sceptical nursery school head emailed me: ‘What happened in that case to all those children whose parents were paying for school meals (and can still afford to pay for school meals). Did they vacate the school while the others caught up, did they stop learning?”
Good question – one that Clegg failed to ask.
“I am intrigued to know precisely what happened to these children,” my head continued, “where they went and what they were doing while the others caught up with them and overtook them academically (in four weeks!) purely because they had now started free school meals? Are we really expected to believe that this is a fact or just yet another pilot study to fit prior requirements – excuse me if I sound cynical.”
Nick Clegg’s half-baked idea didn’t go down too well either with the 9-year-old Rohan who decided to ‘Call Clegg’ on his return to school last week. (What a glutton for punishment Clegg is!). To continue with the cooking metaphor, young Rohan made toast of Clegg. School meals, he asserted, were “unhealthy” and “very expensive” to boot.
After hearing about the one fish finger and a chip lunch my friend’s grandchild was served up last week – the Government’s idea of a nutritious meal – I would tend to believe him.
It was wasting money, young Rohan told the Deputy PM, on the many parents who could well afford to buy their own meals . Quite so. For good measure he announced that his sister had lost her music lesson and others their gym, thanks to it being commandeered for Clegg’s cook up.
Poor Nick, he’s made no one happy – except he is not poor, he’s a liability. Anyway he had better start praying for a loaves and fishes moment. To top it all he hasn’t even satisfied the poverty lobby. According to ‘the State is the solution’ Children’s Society, he has another 570,000 poverty-stricken mouths still to feed. More is never enough.
As for his concern for ‘disadvantaged children’, as my nursery head correspondent suggested, might he not be better to put the money into educating the parents as to how to feed their children themselves – a healthy balanced diet, at proper family meal times, rather than relieving them of this responsibility entirely?
“Is it just me who feels that if a couple wish to have a child (or several) it should be them who actually take responsibility for their family,” she asked. It seems so, as far as Clegg and his dormant Conservative colleagues are concerned.
In fact, they have made quite sure that parental responsibility is dumped into someone else’s lap.
And all for a fish finger and a chip.