Free school meals are a no-brainer

  • @The_Real_JSP

More than two years ago I begged the Government to make school dinners compulsory for all and to ban packed lunches. Since 2008, I've been urging politicians to make cookery compulsory in primary schools and to involve children in the preparation and serving of food as a way of teaching them social skills. There has been a television series and a huge campaign by Jamie Oliver, as well as a review of school dinners conducted by Henry Dimbleby and co.

As we've seen with Mary Portas's stuttering campaign to revive our ailing high streets, politicians just love initiating a big "review" (like they did with hospital food) into a headline-grabbing area of public concern, and then, when the work is done (usually by high-profile advisers for nothing) and well-researched proposals are made, they shove the document into a Whitehall filing cabinet marked "pending" and claim poverty.

Last week, school dinners hit the headlines again when Nick Clegg announced at the Lib Dem conference that, from September 2015, every child in the country under eight, regardless of family income, would receive a free hot school lunch, at a cost of around £600m. Critics say that the £400 a year which each family will save per child should be limited to the poorest – why help middle-class and wealthy families when child benefit is being cut? One Tory complained that this was a "deal done on the back of a fag packet" as it emerged that Lib Dems had objected to free school meals proposed by councils in several of their MPs' constituencies (Southwark, Islington and Hull).

Apparently, in the wheeling and dealing that always takes place before party conferences, the Tories and Lib Dems agreed that if David Cameron got his marriage tax allowance (which Lib Dems oppose and will cost the Treasury around £500m), they could announce free school meals. (Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has just announced he will "ban" the "bedroom tax" the minute he arrives in Downing Street – another shameless bit of headline-grabbing designed to chime with his arrival at conference.)

Tax allowances for married couples and free school meals are no-brainers. What's scandalous is that they are being actioned only because of some macho cabal in a Whitehall back room, to secure flattering news coverage for parties that have lost their way and are failing to connect with the public. Who is going to train the staff, equip the kitchens, find the larger dining rooms and police this operation, all within 11 months? And why should kids stop needing a hot meal when they turn eight?

In the areas where free meals have been piloted, pupils have been, on average, two months ahead in their work. Results from this summer's national tests, meanwhile, have shown a drop in the reading levels of 11-year-olds, and that a quarter would not pass Michael Gove's new tests in spelling and grammar. Surely, nutrition is a key factor in achieving literacy through improved concentration.

It's disgusting our kids' well-being is in the hands of horse-trading nonentities who (as Damian McBride's memoirs show only too clearly) will promise anything to stay in power.

Proud and curious

My attention span is famously short, but I was happy to spend an engrossing evening with Hayley Atwell and co at Trafalgar Studios, just off London's Trafalgar Square. The Pride opened to rave reviews last month and is a hot ticket – around three-quarters of the audience are gay men, who clearly relate to this sensitively told story of changing attitudes to homosexuality over half a century. In the first half, set in the 1950s, Atwell's husband falls for the man she is working with. Later, she's a friend trying to console a gay best friend, dumped by a partner who can't cope with his promiscuity. Matt Horne contributes some jaw-dropping cameos, including a turn as a rent boy in Nazi uniform. I went to this theatre once a year as a child (then the Whitehall) with Mum and Dad, for a new Brian Rix farce. Now, its clever choice of work attracts people who wouldn't normally go to the West End. Later in the week, I had dinner with a friend from Estonia, who runs a big media company. He was going to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for the second time in a fortnight. Again, he's not a regular theatregoer – rock concerts are his thing – but this play resonates with thirtysomethings and professional singletons.

Thankfully, the West End can attract young smart audiences who don't arrive in coaches for hen parties.

Looking back through a lens

An impressive new gallery, Media Space, has opened at London's Science Museum, with an excellent exhibition of black and white photojournalism from the 1960s and 1970s, highlighting the British in all our eccentricity.

Tony Ray-Jones died in 1972 aged 30, but his influence is still felt today. Martin Parr records the same territory – ordinary people at work and play – in an equally distinctive style. It's hard to believe that many of these images of men and women in ill-fitting suits and horrible haircuts, drinking tea at windy seaside resorts, looking uncomfortable on boat trips and posing awkwardly by their caravans, were taken at exactly the same time as the Sex Pistols and The Clash were revolutionising music in London clubs. This exhibition seems to look back to an era of austerity when glamour was in desperately short supply.

Say no to yes-men

Noreena Hertz has written perceptive books about the growth of global capitalism and international debt. Now she's turned her attention to the information age, with Eyes Wide Open, subtitled How to Make Decisions in a Confusing World.

I like her approachable tone (which some reviewers have sneered at as homely). She's right on the money with a directive that we should become "challengers" of so-called expert advice. So much of what passes for fact and scientific research these days is funded by businesses with financial interests in changing our behaviour and directing us towards certain products. Hertz reckons we make 10,000 trivial decisions a day; of which about 227 relate to food.

One fallacy about modern life is the blind assumption that choice is good. Choice is draining, and generally fake. From supermarkets to technology to cosmetics, a few large entities control prices, distribution and product development. Another important aspect of decision-making that Hertz tackles is how to choose the right person for a job. She says we should always choose people we disagree with, because it enhances a team and encourages discussion. Smart bosses never surround themselves with yes-people. Sadly, I doubt that any of our political leaders will read this book.