Clegg’s free school meals plan may have some glitches, but who cares?

Both sides of this argument could go on until the next election

Share

Of all the Whitehall departments, it used to be said, the Department for Education was the most “coalicious” – that is, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers got on together the best. Sure, George Osborne and Danny Alexander have a ball at the Treasury, and the Department for Work and Pensions is dubbed the Department for Worship and Prayer because Iain Duncan Smith and his Lib Dem deputy, Steve Webb, bond over their common strongly held Christian beliefs. But the partnership of Michael Gove and David Laws, the Conservative Education Secretary and the Liberal Democrat schools minister, was the living embodiment of David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Rose Garden bromance. This was a relationship that was sure to last the distance.

Yet, perhaps because the education of children is such an emotive area, this partnership is showing signs of collapse. Last year, Laws broke ranks with Gove over qualified teachers in free schools; then, earlier this year, they fell out over the sacking of Sally Morgan as chair of Ofsted. Most seriously, there were suggestions of differences over the policy to give the youngest schoolchildren free school meals, almost from the moment it was announced. But this week we have learnt how deep those differences are.

Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former special adviser, claims the £600m policy was viewed by DfE officials as a “bad gimmick” that had not been thought through at all before it was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister at the 2013 Lib Dem conference. It was done behind Gove’s back as a quid pro quo between Clegg and Cameron, in exchange for the Lib Dems agreeing to the Conservatives’ married couples’ tax allowance. Laws says Cummings is talking “utter balls” when he says that there was widespread opposition in the DfE. Officials had been researching the policy since 2009 and there are clear benefits for children’s health and attainment, the minister says.

Regardless of whose version you believe, it is clear that there are issues with the policy. Having first pledged that all 1.4 million five- to seven-year-olds in England would receive a free hot lunch, the Lib Dems have had to modify this to merely nutritious, rather than hot, because not all schools have on-site kitchens. There are also concerns about implementation, with head teachers this week alarmed that some children will have to eat at 11am, as part of staggered lunchtimes, or choose their meals two hours in advance. And there are worries about value for money, with Cummings claiming that the schools maintenance capital budget is being used to pay for free school meals.

This is somewhat rich coming from someone whose boss axed the Labour government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, but whatever. Both sides of this argument could go on until the next election, as they probably will, about the process, the budget, the implementation and the detail of this policy. It is true that universal free school meals was a flagship Lib Dem policy in exchange for a flagship Conservative policy, the marriage tax break. Given that both were designed with 2015 voters in mind, the key question for Cameron and Clegg, Gove and Laws, is this: are you in politics to make the lives of children better, through a healthy nutritious lunchtime meal; to reduce the stigma of free school meals, which are currently only for the poorest; to target any money there is at health and education; and to save families who have just come through the financial hell of paying for childcare? Or, are you in politics to fund couples who get married, while telling those who decide not to wed that the state does not want to support you? Because if universal free school meals is a gimmick, then it is a well-intentioned one that should be celebrated.

Twitter: @janemerrick23

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a languages...

Year 6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

Year 6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

Year 4 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 4 Primary Teachers needed Randst...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: out of time, polling and immigration and old words

John Rentoul
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past