Labour 'overstating' the evidence for free school meal plan, says researcher cited by Corbyn

Posted On: 
6th April 2017

Labour’s proposal to introduce VAT on private school fees to fund free school meals for all primary pupils has received a mixed reaction from experts. 

Jeremy Corbyn wants to introduce free school meals for all primary pupils
PA Images

One of the academics cited by Jeremy Corbyn warned further research was needed to justify the policy, while the former chief inspector of schools said the money raised could be better used elsewhere.

Mr Corbyn will announce the £900m plan at a children’s holiday club in Lancashire alongside Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner later today.

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The Labour leader said the plan would “benefit the educational attainment and health of all children while ending a subsidy to the privileged few”.

“No child in the UK should go hungry at school. By charging VAT on private schools fees, Labour will make sure all primary school children, no matter what their background, get a healthy meal at school,” he added.

Labour said the Institute for Fiscal Studies had shown “universal access to free school meals improves educational attainment”, but the researcher behind the paper cautioned against rolling out the scheme nationwide on the basis of her findings.

“We definitely concluded that we needed more work,” Lorraine Dearden told the Today programme.

“We found that there was no impact on absences, so it wasn’t through children attending school more; there was no impact on things like BMI [body mass index], so while we found that there was a slight improvement in attainment we struggled to find the mechanism by which this took place.”

Ms Dearden said it would be “overstating it quite a bit” to go through with the “very, very expensive” scheme on the basis of two pilot schemes which found attainment improved by two to four months on the introduction of universal free school meals.

“We weren’t able to identify the mechanism by which this was working and, whilst we were reasonably confident that in pretty deprived areas this seemed to have an effect – particularly amongst those who were relatively disadvantaged in particular – we were very careful to say more work needed to happen before you would roll this out nationally,” she added.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, who was the head of Ofsted until last year, gave the policy "six out of ten" and said that while he had “no objection” to scrapping the tax exemption on school fees, the money would be better spent elsewhere.

“Giving more money to those parents who need to be supported is a good idea,” he said.  

“What we’ve seen over the last few years is that the pupil premium has worked. It’s working particularly in primary schools where the attainment gap between free school meal children and non-free school children has narrowed and narrowed quite considerably. But that is different.

“I don’t see why we should subsidise rich and prosperous parents who can well afford to pay for their children. I’d rather see any extra cash that’s available given to poor parents.”

When Theresa May was asked about the proposal at an event in Nottinghamshire she claimed Labour’s economic policies would leave schools and other public services in a “parlous condition”.