five shillings ( two florins and a one shilling coin)

Five shillings

Once a week, I work in a day centre for homeless people. The centre works very much on a “hand-up not a handout” basis and makes a nominal charge of a £1 for a good quality cooked meal. A couple of months ago, I was buying my dinner ticket and casually remarked that I could remember the time when you paid five shillings* a week for school dinners. The student placement who was operating the till stared at me in complete horror and said, “Don’t ever say that again. It makes you sound so old”.

Last week the LibDems  promised free school dinners for all under-8s.

How will this be funded? Apparently primary schools already have the money lying around in their generously endowed coffers. Yeah, right.

Will it be effective? Radio 4’s excellent More or Less has looked into the pilot study on which the policy is based and suggests that the results aren’t as clear cut as has been claimed. There also seems to be some anecdotal evidence from schools that have experimented with free meals that this approach can help pupil performance, but, as we all know, the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data“.

School meals

School meals (Photo credit: Coventry City Council, via Wikimedia commons)

Despite the dodgy evidence base and even dodgier economics, I’m inclined to support this policy. Yes, school meals as a universal benefit will mean that lots of middle class children will be given something that their parents can perfectly well afford. But isn’t  that a price worth paying to remove the stigma attached to free school meals (which may even discourage parents from claiming them in the first place) and provide a much-needed boost for hard-pressed families who may fall short of the criteria for free school meals?

I’d like to suggest, though, that, instead of making meals completely free, there should be a nominal charge. Not an economic charge, but a nominal one that would give parents the dignity of contributing to their children’s welfare and help children to avoid developing a something-for-nothing mentality.

How much? How about 20p** a day? It should be low enough to be affordable by any parent, but enough to underline a gentle lesson in basic economics in the mind of a 7 year-old.

“Do Free School Meals Work?” (More or Less, Radio 4, first broadcast 20th Sep 2013, Available to listen to from  BBC Dowloads
*25p (=1s/5p per day)
**4 shillings (=£1 per week)