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'Forget universal free school meals. Schools should focus on feeding young minds'

Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, writes:

With summer over, one can only wonder how British children’s health and wellbeing will have fared during the six weeks away from school. Mums and dads – without teachers to check up on them – may have indulged in the unthinkable and let their kids consume food that doesn’t follow DfE healthy-eating guidelines. All hell will have broken loose: fizzy drinks, deep-fried fatty chips, loads of lovely chocolate.  Don't parents know that what children eat is a key driver in behaviour and academic success? 

The educational orthodoxy is that parents can’t be trusted to feed their own kids without a teacher's paternalistic supervision. The tone of debates, whether about breakfast clubs or compulsory cooking lessons, often reveals a disparaging view of those who dare commit the culinary crime of feeding their own offspring junk food, ready meals or a Sunday fry-up. Some teachers have no qualms in sending notes in lunch boxes to reprimand parents for serving inappropriate snacks to their own children. When one school hit the headlines for expelling a six-year-old for bringing Mini Cheddars to school, the headteacher and governors were outraged at media distortion, claiming, without a hint of irony: “We have not excluded a pupil for just having Mini Cheddars in their lunchbox, but where there is a persistent and deliberate breach of school policy, such as bringing in crisps, biscuits, sausage rolls, mini sausages, scotch eggs and similar”. This type of dietary dictatorship is surely taking in loco parentis rather too literally.

Official sneering about packed lunches has led to the government’s universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) scheme, which came into force last week. The nation’s primary schools have been racing against the clock to get their buildings ready to roll out UIFSM for all four- to seven-year-olds, to deal with the ‘problem’ of parents choosing packed lunches over school dinners. On face value, this expansion should be a winner for its champion, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. What’s not to like about offering the nation’s infants free, nutritious meals?

While the government has provided capital funding to cover the costs of construction of new kitchens and the cost of each meal provided, many schools have struggled to be ready on time. David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools minister, has been forced to admit that, initially, some schools have had to provide only cold food until extra kitchens have been completed.

Now the Local Government Association (LGA) has revealed that funding to bring school kitchens up to scratch has fallen short in almost half of local authority areas. The LGA warns that millions of pounds will be slashed from other budgets, such as school maintenance, to plug the gap. And on the issue of plugging gaps, when asked how schools will deal with finding extra staff to supervise school dinners, Lib Dem Sir Malcolm Bruce simply asked: “What are teachers doing when the children are having lunch?" Does school meals for infants mean no food for teachers?

Perhaps a more interesting question is why this one particular costly and ill-thought through educational revolution did not receive more opposition – even scrutiny – from hard-pressed educational authorities, headteachers or teaching unions? It's indicative of how "healthy eating" has become an unquestioned and unquestionable dogma. Dr Hilary Cass, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recently declared: "People will argue about the merits or otherwise of giving schools freedom over the curriculum and how children are taught, but when it comes to school food, there can be no debate." Sadly too many teachers have uncritically accepted this mantra.

This lack of debate explains the ridiculous exaggeration of the benefits of the new schools meals policy, heralded as the key to improving everything from social mobility to UK plc. Nick Clegg wildly claims: “Providing universal free school meals will help give every child the future they deserve, building a stronger economy and a fairer society.” Southwark Labour councillor Dora Dixon Fyle, cabinet member for children's services, waxed lyrical about how the UIFSM pilot-scheme in her area contributed to cultural cohesion: “There's nothing more uplifting than children from different social backgrounds all sitting around the table together – being told how to use their knives and forks properly”. 

Others welcome UIFSM for helping families save £440 a year in austerity Britain. But why then free dinners for ALL children? And, despite the hype around hunger in the UK and food banks, a bit of historic perspective is helpful. As Rob Lyons, author of Panic on a Plate, reminds us: “In 1906, when the Liberal government allowed local authorities to provide food to schoolchildren, the aim was to provide meals to children…to help those who were ‘unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided for them’”. Now problem is not “lack of food” but the sort of food. And it is food that is given the magical powers to improve educational attainment: the mythical "brain food".

In justifying UIFSM, Nick Clegg has made the spurious claim that school meals “will… have an impact on how a child performs in the classroom…Pupils at the pilot schools who were all given free meals were found to be up to two months ahead of their peers elsewhere".  Delivering his Autumn Statement, chancellor George Osborne said children would “do better at school…when they have a proper meal inside them”. Cllr David Simmonds, chair of LGA’s children and young people board, has argued that, “the benefits the free school meals initiative will bring are not just nutritional but educational” because school dinners will improve “standards…pupils' behaviour and concentration”.  Who needs teachers, libraries, textbooks when a plate of greens is so pedagogically effective?

Of course, the elephant in the room is the “obesity time-bomb”. This week, the Obesity Observatory issued dire warnings about many children needing plus-size school uniforms, with stores allegedly selling blazers equivalent to a woman’s size 30, and trousers with 50 inch waistlines. Whether urban myth or fact, I am wary of the scaremongering that declares this generation of children may not live as long as their parents based on their childhood dinner menu. How then to explain that other time-bomb associated with increasing longevity, with a third of babies born in 2014 expected to live to be 100?

Regardless, before teachers sacrifice educational priorities to solve a public health challenge or dole out nutritional advice to parents, are they really qualified to dictate what children should eat, when even the experts disagree? Which five-a-day should be taught as correct? The government says your five portions can include fresh, frozen, canned, dried or pure juices, whereas a major UCL study has recently argued that fruit juice confers no benefit, even alleging that canned fruit “appears to increase the risk of death”.

At a time when schools and parents alike follow official NHS advice and learn to make smoothies, Liverpool researchers tell us that they are “silently delivering large amounts of refined sugar". And we all now know how ‘evil’ sugar is, don’t we?  In January, Labour MP Keith Vaz laughably declared a “war on sugar”; “sugar is the new tobacco”, in the words of lobby group Action on Sugar. Yet an interesting new briefing paper The Fat Lie refutes the idea that the main cause for any rise in obesity is high-fat foods, sugary drinks or calorie consumption, instead showing the culprit to be lack of physical activity.

Confused? Good. Let that be the lesson. Food is not your expertise, and neither should it be. You get on with teaching, let parents do the rearing, and focus schools on what they are designed for: feeding young minds.

 

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