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Should the state provide free meals to children in the school holidays?

Families need a helping hand outside of school terms too. Anthony Devlin / PA Archive/Press Association Images

Should the state provide free meals to children in the school holidays?

It is well known that poverty blights childhood. It leaves children feeling neglected, hungry and excluded from social and educational activities which are enjoyed by other children. But it goes further than the school yard: anecdotal evidence from teachers and teaching unions, shows that poor children who return to school after the holidays lag behind others in their class work. It may take months to return to where they were before the holidays started.

While the holiday hunger in particular is well researched there is an urgent need for more study on its effects on children’s performance once they return to school.

The government estimates that 2.3m children across the country are living in poverty, while charity research figures show that one in three children in Wales alone live in poor conditions. Furthermore, estimates in 2013 revealed that child poverty costs society as a whole at least £29 billion each year – a figure which is projected to increase to £35 billion by 2020.

However, these are not children of parents or guardians that are out of work: at least six in ten of the children living in poverty are part of families where at least one adult is employed. But just one week out of school, away from free meals, is enough to push some families into food poverty.

In the summer of 2014, the largest provider of food banks in Britain, the Trussell Trust, reported a 38% increase in referrals during school holidays and nearly a third of those referred were children.

But what more can we do to help children outside of school terms? A new debate about whether the state should provide free school meals during holidays has sparked great interest. Is this a logical extension to the current role of the state? And what advantages could it have to the educational achievement of children living in poverty?

Free school meals during term-time have been part of the anti-poverty landscape since the 1900s. In England and Scotland, all school children between five and seven receive free school meals, regardless of their ability to pay. In Wales, all primary school children are entitled to receive a free breakfast at the start of each school day. Other countries, such as Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic, make free school meals universally available to children of all ages.

Play schemes and holiday clubs have the potential to fill the free meal gap. Chris Radburn/PA Archive/Press Association Images

While providing food for youngsters whose parents or guardians would otherwise not be able to afford them, free school meals are not without their problems, including low uptake from the stigma surrounding the issue.

The qualifying criteria has also been criticised as being too tight: to be eligible for free school meals, a family must have an annual income under £16,190 a year. This excludes some children who might be living in households below the 60% median income poverty line. According to the Office for National Statistics, 19.3 million people in total had a disposable income below the national median at some point between 2010 and 2013 – not all of whom would have fallen under the qualifying meals criteria.

Making a meal of it

There are some voluntary organisations providing free meals for children who would otherwise go without a cooked dinner – working through the Make Lunch Network.

Likewise, over the Easter holidays, the Anglican Church in Wales church provided free lunches for children from poor Welsh families. The Scottish authority of North Ayrshire also voluntarily provided free school meals during holiday times for poor children with a small charge for other children.

Although the gap in meal provision during holidays is seemingly being filled by voluntary organisations, the church in Wales has warned that coverage is at best patchy and mostly non-existent.

The potential involvement of the state is not a new concept but one that could not have come at a better time. There is now an urgent need for further government action to address the worsening position of child poverty in the UK. The Blair government’s target of eradicating child poverty by 2020 will be hopelessly missed, and the country is now the most unequal society in the EU, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

One way of tackling this inequality is to reduce the gap in academic attainment between rich and poor pupils. The provision of free meals during holidays would help towards this goal since poor children would achieve more in schools after the end of holidays had they been eating well during that time. Better academic attainment will mean better life chances and consequently an opportunity to escape poverty – which will also mean less costs to the state in social security benefits. In addition, there is the further moral argument that it is unacceptable that up to a third of our children are not fed properly during the school holidays.

There are many effective things that could be used to make a difference to children’s lives, their sense of achievement and value in society. Free meals is just one of these.

Free meals could also be provided in holiday clubs, which could have a fun and learning dimension. Indeed, Frank Field MP has argued that four pence per litre of the proposed 20p fizzy drinks tax should be used for a national programme of school holiday food and fun provision.

Evidently, the state could make a substantial difference to the educational attainment of poor children by simply providing free meals during holidays, and create a fairer society in the process. Children are our greatest resource for the future and it’s important that they have equal access to educational achievement.