For many people of my generation, school lunches are a painful memory. When I was a primary school pupil, they were compulsory, and, among the images stuck in my head of indescribable sausages, gluey gravy and something inaccurately called ‘custard’, is the daily sight of the ‘pigs’ bin’ in which the leftovers went, the leftovers very often being more or less the whole meal. As I got older, I took a packed lunch to school and was allowed out on a Friday, where I fled to Lanny’s fish-and-chip shop for a hamburger (battered) and chips, which cost, I believe I’m right in saying, 1/9d.
All this has, of course, changed. With the limited budgets afforded to them, school caterers produce varied, colourful and most importantly, healthy food. School meals are free for all pupils in Scotland in P1, P2 and P3, and are also given to school age children, in state schools, whose parents are on certain kinds of benefit: all of this is clearly a very good thing, making sure that our youngest, and our most economically disadvantaged, young people, get at least one good meal a day. It will be making a contribution to closing the poverty-related attainment gap, and anything that is doing that is to be applauded. However, as part of the Labour Party’s UK election manifesto, it’s now proposed to give free school meals to all school pupils (again, I assume that that’s in state schools, and that’s fair enough.) But, my goodness, it’s the kind of policy that makes my teeth ache – don’t these politicians ever actually talk to young people in our schools?
Now, I don’t like to kick a man when he’s down, and Richard Leonard comes across to me as a decent enough guy; if the polls are right, he’s going to have more to worry about that me moaning when Friday dawns. But really….another universal benefit, and one which would cost a lot and achieve very little? I note that the Labour Party also has free prescription charges for all in its UK manifesto – here in Scotland, we already benefit from that, and a very good thing it is too – but here’s the difference.
We have free prescription charges because medicine is very expensive, and, as we can see by looking at the US, if medicine isn’t free, lots and lots of people can’t afford it with terrible consequences. Generally speaking, here in Scotland, people take the medicine they are given, because they know it will make them better – they don’t put it in the pigs’ bin. Universal free school meals are an entirely different game. They are fine, of course, for the very youngest children, sitting in school canteens, eating their rainbow vegetable sticks and their bananas, because the very youngest children basically do what they are told. Now, a case might be made for extending that universality to, say, P4 and P5, extending what might be described as ‘compulsory healthy eating’. P6? Mebbe. However, the idea that high school students would all be given free school food is very much at odds with the worldview of actual teenagers, and, remember again, there is provision for free food for those who, for reasons of economic disadvantage, need it. There is much talk about stigma – about how teenagers entitled to free school lunches don’t take advantage of them, supposedly because they feel ashamed at claiming a free benefit to which most young people are not entitled. Now, there must be some truth in that, but there are ways of dealing with the process by which such benefits are delivered in the canteen and my guess is that most young people who get free school meals and don’t eat them are doing so because they don’t want the food on offer. Young people between the ages of 10 and 20 often have a complex, sometimes troubling relationship with food, but I don’t believe for a minute that ‘getting something for nothing’ will lead to all of Scotland’s secondary school kids trooping into the school canteen for their daily free food, no matter how often their parents and teachers plead with them to do so. Obviously, strapping them down and making them eat would rather stand at odds with the need to consult ‘the pupil voice’.
So, has anyone in the echelons of the Scottish Labour Party actually spoken to focus groups of young people about this? Particularly, in this case, the young people not entitled to school meals – has anyone asked them whether they would eat the food offered, or more importantly, how the money might be better spent? I think there would be some brave and useful dialogue to be had, from our increasingly politicised and aware young people, if Richard Leonard talked about this specific issue with older teenagers. They might, for example, suggest the provision of free fruit and free water at any point of the day as a service to all young people. Our teenagers will, I fear, shun the school canteen in droves, as they do today, no matter whether their school meals are free or not. So if, by any remote chance, the Labour Party sweeps to power, at Westminster or in Holyrood, let’s save this money and use it for further imaginative and necessary initiatives to close that attainment gap, rather than providing a pile more food to feed the pigs.