Like an incompetent school cook offering up soggy rhubarb crumble accompanied by burnt custard, the Liberal Democrats’ policy of free school meals for all infants has been introduced with the best of intentions, but with a somewhat botched execution. The funding has not been put in place properly; local councils seem to have been left with the burden of financing at least some of the plan; and some schools simply do not have the equipment they need to ensure a proper supply of hot food.
It is worth recalling what an appallingly divisive policy it was to have school meals means-tested. For all the safeguards, it inevitably meant that children from poorer families became stigmatised, compounding whatever disadvantages they had to deal with in the first place. “Investment”, as a bogus word for any old public spending, became a badly devalued term in the years when Gordon Brown was running the nation’s finances; but free school meals, offering the best chance of nutrition and healthy food in the crucial early years, are precisely that – money well spent on maximising human potential and the health of our children.
Still, whenever governments invest, the question always arises of where the money will come from. With this policy, the Coalition ought to have made additional funds available, or explained that it would lead to cuts in other parts of education spending. Local councils now justifiably complain that they are having to cut back on other vital investment in education – not least on building repairs – which they had not planned for.
Video: Nick Clegg discusses benefits of free school meals
Despite the lack of clarity, the policy isn’t a bad one. The Liberal Democrats are at least making the effort to make a demonstrable difference to the lives of the poorest children, whereas the Conservative Party resisted. Second helpings then, please, for a scheme that is right in principle if – so far – mishandled in practice.