There is a strange sense of relief in hearing a policy you have criticised for years finally be scrapped. I have long since argued against universal free school meals, for many reasons. But the Tories may come to regret the manner in which they have ended this policy.
Make no mistake. The policy remains a poor one, from its limited value for money and the poor evidence base that it makes a real difference to pupils. It’s always amusing to hear politicians who previously cheered the benefits of the policy now claiming some Damascene conversion.
But what does surprise people is the brazen way the Conservatives have declared the end of the policy. The expectation was that any mention of school meals would be left out of the manifesto, and quietly ditched at some later date. But it seems Theresa May is in a combative mood. Not only scrapping a school meal policy, given some traction by the recent Labour announcement to the opposite, but actually shouting about it.
By doing do, the policy wonks seem to forget that the average man on the street doesn’t understand the difference between Universal Infant Free School meals and free school meals that are the safety net only for the poorest. Being so brazen looks like a tactical miscalculation. People’s perception that this is taking food away from hungry children will provide significant ammunition to the “Tories hate the poor” narrative.
Even stranger then that this miscalculation was avoidable. The sop about free breakfasts, another policy pledge in this manifesto, is never going to be enough to placate people. Instead, Tories could have widened entitlement to free school meals, automated applications and put in something about addressing holiday hunger. All of these would have brought huge benefits to those living in poverty, offered savings and allowed the Tories to sell this as a switch, rather than a cut aimed at the poorest.
Targeting those in greatest need would also help mitigate some of the unintended consequences of scrapping universal free school meals, not least the impact of losing £600 million worth of income for the school catering industry, and subsequently on schools too.
The Tories are right to end this policy, but the way they have done it will not do them any favours.