Universal free school meals: 'This election delivers to heads and teachers yet more political whim and reversals'

19th May 2017 at 11:53
The political U-turn on Universal Infant Free School Meals is just one of many that schools have had to deal with

Reading the Conservative party's plans to scrap universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) in their manifesto, I could almost sense the exasperation emanating from headteachers' offices up and down the country.

It would appear, once again, that there is a very strong chance schools will become the victim of political short-termism, as a once much-heralded initiative is consigned to the policy dustbin.

This is not so much about the pros and cons of policy itself. I recall many colleagues at the time questioning whether providing free lunches to children from wealthy families was the best use of taxpayers' money, especially when resources were (and are increasingly) so limited. Much like the Winter Fuel Allowance for all pensioners, there is a genuine broader question here about the merits of universal benefits.

The real frustration for school leaders is the time, effort and money that was spent making this policy work, only to discover a few short years down the line it looks set to be dropped – and soon-forgotten.

This latest proposed policy reversal is symptomatic of a much broader issue where school leaders and teachers have to deal with the constant distractions that emerge from the perpetual political cycle.

Politicians seem to be completely unaware, or happily able to ignore, the impact of such policies (or policy reversals) in schools. Heads who spent hours in meetings planning to make UIFSM work, liasing with builders to get kitchens extended, changing lunch hours to get all the children through and altering staff contracts so pupils were properly supervised, have every right to feel aggrieved.

'It is very hard for heads not to be cynical'

They will feel immensely frustrated that a policy described to them just four years ago as one that would "help give every child the chance in life that they deserve" is now deemed to be surplus to requirements.

Let's face it, this is far from being the only example – just ask schools who invested considerable time and effort in the extended schools initiative only to see it fizzle out, or, in more recent times, those who prepared for the first attempt at a reception baseline. Government policies, it would seem, have an increasingly short shelf life. In this context, it is very hard for heads not be cynical when looking at the latest set of proposals and wonder how long this set will last.

We have long argued for an office of educational responsibility which would help to depoliticise education policy, and this general election has only served to reinforce must how much this is exactly what is needed.

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets at @JamesJkbowen

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