The Children's Society say new proposals could render a million children in poverty ineligible. But free school meals can make or break a child's futureby Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett / February 8, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Children’s Society says new proposals could leave a million children in poverty ineligible. Photo: PA Sometimes, the sheer cartoon-villainess of the Conservative party would border on hilarity if it wasn’t so sad. “Do they realise how this looks?” I always wonder, as a chinless artisto with such a strong Victorian-workhouse-master vibe he might as well be wearing tails introduces the latest cruel-to-be-kind policy. You suspect they’d introduce mass kitten skinning if they could claim it was for the kittens’ own good. Then you remember that these policies are actually pretty popular, provided that it’s human children, not cat children, who are being harmed. (The British would never tolerate the latter—too many anthropomorphic kids’ books, growing up.) This week, we hear that the Conservatives’ reforms to Universal Credit—an omnishambles if ever there was one—could potentially lead to one million children missing out on free school meals. Children’s Minister Nadhim Zahawi took some time out from being waited on by low-paid half-naked young women many decades his junior (one wonders how many of them were once on free school meals) to announce the new earnings threshold of £7,400. He argues that an extra 50,000 children will be entitled to help. Labour and the Children’s Society argue that, once you take benefits into account, a million children in poverty will no longer be eligible. Is it really necessary, in 2018, for me to have to mount a defence of free school meals? I was a free school meals child, though of course I do not think of myself purely in that sense. We didn’t really know what it meant, back then, except that your dad probably didn’t live with you. Indeed, I always bristle when I read that X per cent of X constituency’s children are on free school meals. It’s a necessary marker for deprivation, of course, but it hits me somewhere visceral. “I am more than that,” I want to yell. It’s the same feeling I get when I see someone with a poster or a banner saying, “product of the welfare state.” I get the political point of it, of course—and in fact anyone who has been to see their GP, or used a library, or had a free eye test is technically a “product of the welfare state.” But I’ve spent too many years being told that people don’t want their taxes spent to help families like mine. Let’s call it residual shame. Yet I was a free school meals child. Those 1,140-ish hot meals over six-odd years enabled me to concentrate in school, get 4 A’s at A-Level, followed by a degree, and now a job I could only have dreamed of. I’m a newspaper columnist! Do you know how ridiculously, hilariously unlikely that is? I work in an industry dominated by people who have never had holes in their shoes, who have never had to worry where their next bill payment was coming from, who took lavish foreign holidays from a young age. Yes, I lack social confidence, and my voice still shakes if I’m forced to address someone more senior. I’ve never asked for a pay rise and I’ll never afford a house. But I’m here. And all because your taxes paid for my Turkey Twizzlers. I am not without privilege, of course. There are many, many children who are worse off that I was. But the link between being properly fed and academic achievement has been proven again and again. And when we’re discussing food meals, we’re talking about the most basic requirements in terms of the hierarchy of needs. Which is why, I ask you this: did you bristle, when in the first paragraph of this column, I conjured the image of a Victorian workhouse master? Another kneejerk lefty unable to think rationally, eh? Well, pause for a minute. Don’t listen to me, listen to the teachers. Because they’re on the frontline. There were 4 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2014-15, an increase of 200,000 on the previous year. This means 30 per cent of children, or nine pupils in every classroom of 30 pupils, are officially poor. The NUT conducted a survey last year, and the results were shocking. Over half (51 per cent) of teachers responding said that pupils at their school were affected by holiday hunger. 78 per cent of respondents who had witnessed holiday hunger among their pupils said that children were turning up to school showing signs of hunger; more than a third (37 per cent) said that pupils were returning to school with signs of malnourishment. In Britain—a developed, socially democratic country—rickets is on the rise. So is food bank usage. Teachers are having to dip into their own pockets to feed hungry children in their classrooms. Imagine how that feels, for a moment. Having to rely on your teacher for food. The gratitude, and the shame. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but as a society, we should not be forcing more children to resort to charity for a hot meal. And if that doesn’t worry us enough, we should also be aware of what taking a million children whose parents are claiming universal credit off free school meals means for the data, the “X in X constituency.” What will happen to that marker of deprivation, once those families aren’t visible? Where will those children go? Nowhere.