You shouldn't be outraged at universal free school meals being scrapped – it was a bad policy

The pledge for was a way for the coalition to ‘seem’ to be nice while being rather nasty

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The Independent Online

I think it was the journalist Libby Purves who coined the term “virtue signalling”, and ever since I came across it I've noticed examples everywhere. She gave a rather brilliant description of the archetypal case: a member of the comfortably rich deciding not to give money to the poor, but to comfort himself instead with a Twitter rant calling Michael Gove a “vile, reptilian Tory scumbag”, before popping off for a caramel macchiato with some pals from the BBC.

But it’s not just Facebook friends who compete to show their compassion in ways where the “signalling” far outweighs the “virtue”. Governments do it, too.

So it is with the pledge on universal free school meals for all pupils aged between four and seven. What a mess of a policy announcement this was, back when Nick Clegg forced it through in 2014, in exchange for Lib Dem support for marriage tax breaks. The schools weren’t prepared – many didn’t even have kitchens – and the requirement to cook up hundreds of meals a day was lobbed at them out of left-field, when they were already struggling to meet the government’s myriad other demands.

The money, planning and facilities weren’t there. Worst of all, the logic wasn’t there. Free school meals for all infants is a lovely idea, in a world where the Department for Education has a budget that stretches to infinity. Clegg wanted to nudge his party’s niceness into the public consciousness, and David Cameron – never one to pass up the chance to mask his party in the pleasant yellow fragrance of his former coalition partners – repeated the commitment in the 2015 Tory manifesto.

Never mind that making free school meals universal diverted state money towards richer families at a time when poorer families (whose children were already receiving free school meals) could have benefited much more from the cash. Never mind that it ruined the “pupil premium” system, which allocated extra funding to schools based on the number of pupils who could claim free school meals – a real Lib Dem achievement, that. Both parties, in short, chose “seeming” to be nice at the cost of actually being rather nasty.

As Dominic Cummings, the former adviser to Michael Gove, put it: “This is a good case study of general political dysfunction. In a small way, it shows why we live in a constant series of gimmicks, cockups, and waste."

Now it is reported that the Conservatives have decided to drop the pledge ahead of November’s spending review, when cuts will be piled on top of cuts. A small beacon of good sense.

Make no mistake, this Government is hurting the poor, as the cut to tax credits makes all too gallingly clear. And the free school meals system is not perfect as it stands. It should not be denied to children of parents whose annual income is below the £16,190 threshold yet claim working tax credits, as is current practice. And it could be extended to all pupils in schools in particularly deprived areas, where many of those eligible are not signed up.

But the crowds who have taken to Twitter to decry the Conservative U-turn are themselves virtue signalling. The Tories might not care much for the needy, but the smoke is not coming from this particular gun.

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