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Free School Meals and the Class Divide in Our Schools

Figures released this week show that more than 1 million children have signed up for free school meals for the first time since Covid-19. It's a symbol of the deep social inequalities that scar our education system.

My dad tells me that lining up for his free meal at school was the most embarrassing time of his life. Growing up one of four kids in a Yorkshire pit village in the 1960s, he was put on the scheme when our grandad Job – the household breadwinner – was forced out of work by a back injury. My dad remembers queuing in a separate line to their classmates whose parents could afford to pay for their lunch.

“You could feel the other kids’ eyes on you when you were in the line,” he says to me. “You had to go up and ask especially for your free meal. I felt ashamed. I knew they knew we were poor, that my dad wasn’t working. It’s something I’ve never forgotten. I’ve carried the feeling with me all my life.”

School meals are one of the first rhetorical battlegrounds of the class struggle that children will encounter in their lives, and as such it solidifies a number of presumptions and disparities which will follow them through life. Free provision has its origins in the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act, brought in by Henry Campbell Bannerman’s newly-elected Liberal administration as part of a sweeping project of socially-minded reforms that arguably laid the groundwork for a welfare state in the United Kingdom.

The Act was a response to the droves of children going to school hungry since the establishment of compulsory elementary education in the late 19th century, and by 1913 around 7% of the pupil population (around 360,000 children) were getting free school meals. At that time, the provision of free school meals was not statutorily compulsory, though, and the majority of local education authorities (LEAs) did not adopt the legislation.

The debate over this was in many ways the beginning of Britain’s tumultuous and sceptical relationship with the notion of poorer schoolchildren getting a free lunch, as well as setting the board for the stigma felt by the children who did.

My dad’s story of waiting in line for his meal is one shared by children across the country for more than a century. By neglecting to implement the measure at its inception, LEAs played into a conservative narrative that depicts providing for the poor as at best an extravagance or at worst an inconvenience.

It took the 1944 Education Act to make free school meals a statutory duty for LEAs and the state schools they oversaw. Two years later free school milk was introduced for all children. It was a time of relative social progress in Britain, from housing to the National Health Service, and working-class concerns were finally achieving some recognition in politics at large. But this, of course, was not to last.

The crises of the 1970s brought the post-war social-democratic era to a close, and gains were rapidly rowed back. As education secretary, Margaret Thatcher had ended free school milk for over-7s in 1971. By the time she became prime minister at the decade’s end, she had far more regressive plans.

Reforms during the years of Thatcherism ended the supplementary provision of free milk altogether – the infamous ‘milk snatching’ – and deregulated the nutritional requirements of free school meals. The Conservative government in the 1980s made no secret of its disdain and disregard for families of lesser means. By 1986, its Social Security Act was kicking huge numbers of pupils off free school meals in the midst of a deep economic crisis. Children, in many ways moreso than their parents, were told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Whether you claimed a free school meal or not has become a shorthand for separating disadvantaged pupils from their privileged peers. It helps to track the life differences (or disadvantages) that poor and working class pupils experience across their lifetimes compared to those from more affluent backgrounds, or even just the slightly better-off kids with whom they might share a classroom.

Any child whose household income has been low enough in the preceding six years to claim free school meals qualifies their school for a Pupil Premium – additional funding to facilitate intervention and support for their academic attainment. Even so, the outcomes for Pupil Premium children remain alarmingly disparate to their contemporaries.

In her 2017 book Miseducation, Cambridge University professor of education Diane Reay found that Pupil Premium children are still 27% less likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A*-C even with the additional help the funding is supposed to provide. As of 2020, this represents a gap in learning for disadvantaged pupils of more than 18 months compared to their peers.

Missing out on these foundational qualifications – which have been reorganised into a more convoluted, exclusionary grading system ranging ‘1-9’ thanks to Michael Gove’s tenure in the Department for Education – and the learning experiences therein has a knock-on effect that sticks for a lifetime.

Doing worse in your GCSEs means fewer choices for further education such as A Levels, diplomas and apprenticeships. That means less access to jobs. Or indeed, a university education – that hallowed conduit to social mobility and ascension into the ranks of the white-collared and metropolitan, as well as the subsequent fruits of an expanded selection of career prospects and a stronger foothold on the property ladder.

Disparities in attainment are easily traced back to economics. Speaking to the Guardian, Reay said: If youre a working class child, youre starting the race halfway round the track behind the middle class child. Middle class parents do a lot via extra resources and activities.” Poorer households are less likely to provide environments that encourage and prioritise learning for children – parents working multiple jobs often simply spend less time in the home, or lack the means to provide expensive books or learning technology.

Separating the ‘disadvantaged’ from the ‘advantaged’ only further catalyses this. A child like my dad, embarrassed in the queue for his free lunch, takes a knock to their confidence and self-worth they carry into the classroom, which leads in turn to demotivation, agitation and disengagement – all of which have deadly effects on a child’s academic performance.

Free school meals, like many liberal reforms, have served as a sticking plaster for much deeper wounds. In June, Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford brought the shameful flaws in the system back into the spotlight with an appeal to MPs to ensure disadvantaged children could still access free lunches during school closures brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Citing estimates from the Food Foundation that 200,000 children were unable to access the food they needed, he wrote: “My mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed.”

Once a free meal kid himself, Rashford’s campaign brought about a massive U-turn from Boris Johnson’s floundering administration to see poor kids through the summer, but the UK now finds itself in a new school term where more than 1 million UK children have registered for free school meals for the first time, on top of the 1.4 million that already claim. Food poverty is unavoidably growing.

Free school meals are one of a number of measures intended to paper over the cracks of a broken system. The delusions of meritocracy held by a political class still largely educated within, and thus wedded to, a private school system which exists entirely apart and above its state counterpart, ignore the damage that inequality does to the prospects of millions of young people.

This damage will only be compounded by an unprecedented worldwide pandemic – as children lacking the resources to learn properly at home fall further behind. Free school meals are a symptom of a diseased economy more broadly, not a solution to its ills. Failure to undertake a wider-reaching, holistic intervention only serves to harm children and adults further.

In the fourth paragraph of the 1906 Act, it states that a household’s inability to pay for school meals should not deprive them “of any franchise, right, or privilege, or subject them to any disability” – an optimistic, but naive, proclamation that has not played out across the years. Disadvantage in school clearly echoes onwards into a poorer child’s life, and echoes downwards into those of their own children and.

My own prospects – a university education and subsequent career in journalism and charity work – compared to those of my parents and peers make me a statistical anomaly. I am the sort of aberration held up by proponents of meritocracy to insist that the system, and social mobility, works. But any broader look at the numbers shows that is untrue.

The blatant inequalities in our schools mean that thousands of children will continue to suffer economic restrictions and social exclusion. For too many, free school meals come with a bitter, lifelong aftertaste – it’s time to fight to change that.