Free for all

school dinners blog

My inbox has been pinging with dire warnings and surveys about the cost of sending children to school. No sooner has the Nationwide Building Society published a survey that shows parents spend almost £400 a year on school dinners than the Government announces universal free school dinners!

For once I think the Government is really tackling the problems of inequality by urging state schools not to price parents away by insisting on them buying a prohibitively expensive school uniform. In a much bolder move it plans to bring in free school meals for all children under eight.

Cue much wringing of the hands by wealthier parents who argued that it was a waste of money and simply subsidised those who could well afford the £1.20 it costs to buy a school lunch. But I think those who are analysing this on purely financial terms are missing the point.

I’m not just thinking about the two horrific news stories this week that involved children literally starving to death. Free school meals aren’t going to stop children being at risk from evil people, but it might help us all to raise happier, healthier, more sociable children.

The point is that children are growing up not knowing how to sit down and eat a meal properly without moaning about the colour of the pasta, the existence of “sauce” or cheese, or anything else they could possibly object to. It’s a universal problem and I’m as guilty of raising picky fusspots as anyone else. Mine moan about onions in the gravy, white sauce on anything, cheese, salad dressing, mayonnaise, mushrooms, mushy peas, Marmite – in fact practically anything beginning with M.

When I was at school we had meat pie on Mondays, fish and chips on Fridays, and various casseroles with dumplings, shepherds pies, fish pies and chicken pies in between. There was always a veggie option, usually involving a baked potato and an off-putting salad with beetroot bleeding into a hardboiled egg and that was about it. A handful of children – whom the rest of us regarded as being embarrassingly precious – had packed lunches, but otherwise we all just sat down, poured ourselves a big, precautionary glass of water from an aluminium jug, and got on with it.

We moaned about it, but we learnt to serve each other, wait for each other, talk to each other and realise that eating a diced onion or a bit of swede will not kill us. No one was forced to eat anything they didn’t like, but peer pressure, and the desire to get out into the playground without listening to a tedious lecture about leaving our cabbage, meant we usually cleared our plates. (Especially as it saved queuing up to scrape them into that horrible slop bucket.)

The one shadow over the process was that try as they might – and the teachers did try – everyone always knew who was on free school meals. I can’t remember anyone particularly caring, but as I wasn’t on free school meals I can’t possibly know how it actually felt to be on the receiving end of them.

And that is why I welcome this latest decision to bring in universal free school meals. Yes, there is an argument that the rich will be being subsidised by the poor, but I think any small financial unfairness will be wiped away by the universal fairness of all children being treated equally and properly.

Posted by Amanda Blinkhorn

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