Labour and Lib Dem plans to expand free school meals to more pupils are economically “plausible” – but there is limited evidence that the polices will help pupils’ health or attainment, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).
The two political parties are each planning to spend £850 million and £1.15 billion, respectively, on widening free school meals – which would come out of their extra funding pledges of £10.5 billion from Labour and £9.1 billion from the Lib Dems over the next three years.
An IFS spokesperson said: “Both parties’ costings of their respective policies are plausible, though the eventual bill will depend on whether they choose to stick to current policy and freeze per-meal spending in cash terms, or to offer real-terms protection in the amount of funding per lunch.
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“Expanding free school meals would save families time and money – but evidence for benefits on test scores or health is limited.”
Widening access to free school meals
While Labour says it would introduce free school meals for all children in primary schools, the Lib Dems would do the same but go further by also offering them to all secondary school pupils whose families are receiving universal credit.
The IFS spokesperson added: “Both parties are promising to take a benefit that is currently means-tested and extend it to all primary school children; by definition, this will tend to help those in better-off families.
“And, while families would welcome the time and money savings from having school lunches provided for free, it’s not yet clear that this policy would have big additional benefits for children’s health or attainment in school.”
The Conservative Party promises to “maintain our commitment” to free school meals – which “appears to be a plan to keep policy as it is”, says the IFS.
Since September 2014, free school meals have been given to all pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2. Other parents do not have to pay for school lunches if they are in receipt of certain benefits.