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New figures reveal soaring rise in free school meal eligibility: Where do the political parties stand on free school meals?


“I am proud the Liberal Democrats have the most ambitious plan for free school meals of any party, which would save parents money and transform the future for millions of children.” – Ed Davey.

New figures show that nearly 2.1 million pupils in England are now eligible for free school meals.

Data published by the Department for Education (DfE) shows that over the last year, an additional 75,000 children became eligible for free school meals. In January this year, almost one in four (24.6 percent) of pupils in England were eligible for free school meals, up from 23.8 percent in January 2023.

Leaders in the education sector said the numbers were just “the tip of the iceberg,” as some children living in poverty are missing out on free school meals.

Children in state schools in England can receive free meals if a parent or carer receives benefits, including child tax credits, Universal Credit, or income support.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust charity, said that the “true need for free school meals goes far beyond current eligibility criteria.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“The very low-income cap of £7,400 for free school meals means some children living in poverty are missing out, and it is appalling that this cap has not been increased with inflation since it was introduced six years ago.”

Concurrent with the DfE data regarding free school meal eligibility, a separate study found that two-thirds of constituencies have at least a quarter of children living in poverty. The research, carried out by Loughborough University for the End Child Poverty Coalition, found that child poverty costs the British economy £39 billion annually. It also found that more than 30 percent of children across Britain are living in poverty.

With the demand for free school meals increasing, as child poverty rises, what are the different political parties’ positions on the policy as we approach the general election?

Lib Dems have announced free school meals plan funded by a buyback tax

At the end of May, the Liberal Democrats announced plans for free school meals for all primary children funded by a new share buyback tax. The policy would begin with the immediate extension of free school meals to all 900,000 children living in poverty but are currently missing out.The second phase would involve all primary school children receiving free school meals and would be funded by a 4 percent levy on the share buybacks of FTSE 100 listed corporations.

During an election campaign visit to Harpenden, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said: “Making sure children get a hot meal at lunchtime if they’re from the poorest backgrounds who are really struggling on the cost of living, it’s so important. And this policy would more than pay for it.

 “I am proud the Liberal Democrats have the most ambitious plan for free school meals of any party, which would save parents money and transform the future for millions of children,” Davey added.

Labour’s free school meal position

The Lib Dem’s announcement may put pressure on Keir Starmer, with many of his MPs wanting to see a similar offering, a policy which was in the party’s 2019 manifesto.

In June last year, dozens of Labour MPs put pressure on the party leadership to extend free school meals to all primary children.

At the time, a Labour spokesperson told the Times:

This is not Labour policy and we have no plans to implement it.”

Following Sadiq Khan securing a historic third term as London’s Labour mayor, free school meals continue to be rolled out in the capital. The mayor has promised to continue the policy for older primary school children for four more years.

Labour’s current policy nationally is to ensure every child at primary school in England has access to fully funded breakfast clubs, but not lunches.

Conservatives’ position on free school meals

The Conservatives’ position is that free school meals should be targeted, and available to only those who need them. The government says that over a third of pupils in England now receive free school meals, compared with one in six in 2010.

During the Covid pandemic, Boris Johnson U-turned twice over free school meals, thanks, in part, to footballer Marcus Rashford’s high-profile campaigning for free school meals. Due to the Manchester United striker’s efforts, the Tories were shamed into providing vouchers to low-income families during the holidays in 2020. The government then made another U-turn by extending support during the holidays in November through a winter grant scheme given to councils.

Green Party’s position on free school meals

The Greens have called on the government to provide free school meals for all primary and secondary school children, “to give every child a fair start in life and help families during the cost of living crisis.”

In November, during its autumn party conference, Wales Green Party members voted to support the introduction of universal free school provision, both in term time and in school holidays.

During the London mayoral election campaign, Green candidate Zoë Garbett promised free school meal expansion in London.She said that she would extend Sadiq Khan’s free school meal programme to cover secondary schools as well as primaries, “so no child is hungry.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward



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