Tory plan to scrap free school lunches an 'absolute betrayal', says co-author of government meals initiative

Schools misled into 'wasting millions' on new kitchens and upgrades after receiving letters of encouragement from former education secretary Michael Gove

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The Independent Online

Conservative party plans to scrap free school lunches have been condemned as an “absolute betrayal” by the man who co-authored the initiative.

Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon restaurant and food chain, is one of a number of celebrity chefs and high profile figures to speak out against the government’s proposals, which will see the scheme replaced with free breakfasts budgeted at a fraction of the cost.

Mr Dimbleby helped write the School Food Plan for the coalition government, which recommended the universal free school meals plan in a bid to improve childhood nutrition and social mobility within early years education.

Speaking to The Evening Standard, he said: “To axe infant free school meals now is an absolute betrayal, not only of our children, but of our headteachers, who have been misled.”

Schools have also wasted hundreds of millions of pounds as a result, the newspaper also revealed, after former education secretary Michael Gove wrote to all headteachers to encourage them to invest in new kitchens and upgrades in preparation for the new programme.

One London school said it had waste several thousand pounds and become locked into a catering contract after being encouraged to do so by Mr Gove’s assurances.

They pointed to a letter sent to schools by Mr Gove and former Schools Minister David Laws in 2014, which highlighted the health and academic benefits of universal free dinners and insisted the meals were "a serious and long-term policy commitment".

Former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who led the coalition initiative, has also criticised Theresa May for her “cruel and illogical decision” to take away the hot lunches, a move he said would hurt “thousands of Britain’s poorest children”.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver said the Tory policy was "misguided", and argued the Government’s proposed breakfast budget of 7p per child was “just bonkers”.

"Swapping from free lunch to a cheap, probably sugary, breakfast is misguided, mean, and a false economy,” he added.

In its General Election manifesto, the Conservative party pledged to scrap universal free lunches for infant school children in England, but said they would instead offer a free breakfast for all primary school pupils.

Evidence shows that a free school breakfast is as effective at helping children learn as a hot meal at lunch, the party said, and can be delivered at a tenth of the cost, at around £60 million a year.

But experts have calculated that the price of free breakfasts could run into hundreds of millions of pounds, prompting questions over whether the plan could be delivered after all.

When challenged by the media last week, the Conservatives acknowledged the cost of free breakfasts for schools “could vary” depending on how many children take up the offer.

Explaining schools’ dilemma, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said: "In 2014, the evidence and the ambition for this policy were both made clear to us.

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“In the letter, school leaders were also told to expect that the policy would be extended to 'additional year groups in the future'. On the basis of these assurances, school leaders invested heavily in newer kitchens, more staff and extra equipment.

"Three years later, these proposals are set to be ripped up, leaving those of us with the best interests of children at heart utterly perplexed.

"It would be a huge mistake to end universal infant free school meals without any proper evaluation of the project. Hundreds of millions of pounds of investment is set to be wasted with no clear rationale apart from a desire to save money."

Mr Dimbleby, said: "The taxpayer spent £180m on installing and refurbing school kitchens, and the schools invested their own precious funds too.

“To axe infant free school meals now is an absolute betrayal, not only of our children, but of our headteachers, who have been misled and whose budgets are already stretched.

"The proposal to invest £60m instead on free breakfast for all children would work out at a measly 7p per breakfast,” he added.

“A handful of sugary cereal will not sustain a child for a day - I challenge anyone to show me a healthy, filling breakfast that could be made for that amount."

Half of low-income pupils go hungry at breakfast and a further fifth eat breakfasts with little or no nutritional value, it has been reported.

Responding to criticisms the party had severely underestimated the new policy’s costs, a Conservative spokesman said: "These fears are unfounded and it is disappointing to see them whipped up as a scare campaign.

"Our plans guarantee that every primary school child will have access to a free breakfast at school, which experts say provides the same benefits as a free lunch, and we'll continue to ensure school lunches are free for those who need them. So the poorest children will get not one but two free school meals per day."

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