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Understanding the Free School Meals debate

April 28th 2021

Free School Meals has become a major policy issue ahead of the Senedd election. Steffan Evans takes a look at the key questions that should be considered.

Free School Meals

A little over a year ago few would have imagined that Free School Meals would be a major policy issue heading into the election. The pandemic, and in particular Marcus Rashford’s campaign, has shone a light on an issue that has been overlooked for too long. The economic impact of the pandemic has also fundamentally changed the landscape with thousands more children already receiving Free School Meals and support through the holidays.

Last June we published our Lifting children out of poverty, the role of the Welsh Benefits System report. The report drew on research that we had undertaken in 2019 exploring how families who are trapped in poverty are provided with support by the Welsh Government and Welsh local authorities. One of the major findings of our report was that the Free School Meals system, as currently designed, is failing too many families trapped in poverty. That is why the Bevan Foundation has been calling on all parties to commit to expand the eligibility criteria for Free School Meals, to at least include all children whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit.

We are pleased to see that these calls are reflected to some extent in the manifestos of each of the three main parties. Much of the debate around the policy to date, however, has lacked focus. The Bevan Foundation, in partnership with Policy in Practice and the Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition, are currently working a detailed analysis of the cost implications of expanding provision and on the practical considerations that will need to be overcome. These reports will be published shortly after the election but in this article we outline the key questions that need to be considered.

What are the major parties promising?

Plaid Cymru have pledged to expand eligibility to all children whose family receives Universal Credit or which has no recourse to public funds. The party also pledges to make Free School Meals available on a universal basis for primary school children by the end of the next Senedd term. Welsh Labour have pledged to review the current eligibility criteria and to expand them as far as resources permit. The Welsh Conservatives on the other hand have pledged to fund a programme for children in receipt of Free School Meals that will cover the school holidays.

The fact that all three major parties have made commitments on Free School Meals is a welcome development and demonstrates its increased importance as a result of the pandemic.

How much would it cost to expand eligibility for Free School Meals?

One of the issues that has gained the most scrutiny during the election campaign is how much would it cost to expand Free School Meals. The debate so far, however, has blurred the lines between the direct cost of providing more meals in school and the knock-on implications of expanding eligibility for other programmes. It is vital that these issues are separated out if we are to consider the issue correctly.

With regards to direct costs, our research has uncovered that there are two primary costs associated with expanded eligibility. The first is any additional revenue cost associated with preparing the meal i.e. the cost of buying extra food, recruiting extra staff to prepare meals. The second is any additional capital costs that would be incurred to meet increased demand i.e. any extra equipment that would need to be bought. Whilst there may be some savings from expanding provision these extra costs are inherent when expanding eligibility.

Under the current system the Welsh Government and Welsh local authorities would also incur additional costs as a result of expanding provision. Most children who are eligible for Free School Meals currently are eligible for the Pupil Development Grant (Access). In addition, the number of children who are in receipt of Free School Meals is part of the formula used to allocate funding to local authorities (through the Revenue Support Grant) and to schools (through the Pupil Development Grant). Any increase in the number of children eligible for Free School Meals could therefore lead to an increase in expenditure on these policies.

Our research suggests that these knock-on costs are not inevitable. There may be a range of options available for the Welsh Government to ‘de-couple’ expanded eligibility for Free School Meals from other funding. Including these additional costs in discussions on expanding eligibility muddies the waters and makes it more difficult to hold parties to account.

How quickly could change be bought about?

Any major policy change can take time. Rushing through a major change can lead to some unintended consequences that cause more harm than good. On the other hand, there are children in Wales going hungry today because of the issues with the current system. The current debate has lacked clarity from all parties on this question. Whilst Plaid Cymru’s manifesto does set out its ambition to provide Free School Meals to all children in primary schools by the end of the next Senedd term, it does not set out when it would expect to expand eligibility to all children whose families receive Universal Credit. Labour’s manifesto on the other hand provides no indication as to when any review would take place. These are important questions that should be considered.

What about the holidays?

Whilst the Conservative manifesto does not make any commitments to expand the eligibility criteria of Free School Meals, it is the only manifesto to commit to funding a programme for children in receipt of Free School Meals to cover all school holidays for the whole of the next Senedd. The Labour manifesto does pledge to build on the School Holiday Enrichment Programme but does not pledge to guarantee Free School Meals over the holidays after Easter 2022, whilst the Plaid manifesto is silent on holiday provision. Given how vital the support offered over the past year has been to families it is important that parties consider what lessons could be drawn for the longer term.

Where to learn more?

To learn more about the why Free School Meals matter and the limitations with the current system make sure you catch up with our previous publications and keep your eye out on the Bevan Foundation’s website for our upcoming publications.

Dr Steffan Evans is a Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation 

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