My eldest boy started school in September 2014 – just when the free school lunches for infants started.
He will end his time at infant school this summer, just as the free lunches look set to end. He is the free-school-lunches boy.
You should come and meet my biggest boy sometime, Mrs May. Come and see him as he pores over the menu for the term, committing each option carefully to memory. Come round on a Monday as he gleefully exclaims ‘mmmmm, traditional chicken pie with mixed vegetables today – yum’. Come over one weekend and listen as he begs me to make ‘Scotty meatloaf’, just like the one they have at school. Hear him talk about the superiority of school’s cabbage over mine. Come over at 3pm one day, Mrs May, and watch my three little boys running out of school desperate to be the first one to tell me what they had for their lunch – ‘sticky chicken with rice AND pasta AND carrots AND cucumber AND sweetcorn and BANANA MOUSSE for pudding! WITH SPRINKLES!’ Come over at breakfast time and listen to the 6 year old advising his brothers on the best lunch choice of the day – ‘don’t go for the jacket potato today, ok…..not when you can have roast beef!’
You should come and visit our little school sometime too, Mrs May – come and meet our lovely school cook. Come and watch her at the beginning of the day, setting up in the kitchen and waving to the children as they arrive. Come and ask her how she feels about serving the children a good lunch every day. Let her tell you about the children – she knows them all by name. She’ll tell you about this little one who loves Wednesday roast, and that little one who polishes off every last bite and then asks for seconds. Come along to school and ask her about the recent jacket potato competition, which asked the children to come up with ideas for their perfect jacket potato filling – the winning entries were served for lunch later that week. Speak to the teachers……ask them how excited the children were as they brought their entry forms into school on the Monday. Ask the cook what ideas the children came up with and which entries were the winners. Such a good idea, don’t you think Mrs May? An idea that got the children to be creative and to think about food. An idea which included every child, without anyone having to remember to bring in their lunch money, or worrying that their parents wouldn’t want to pay for a school lunch that day. It was so successful that they’d like to involve the children more regularly in menu planning. I know, isn’t that great?
Come and meet my boys, Mrs May…..meet my boys, their friends, their teachers and the school cook. Come and meet them, and then tell me you’re taking away free infant school lunches.
I’m not pretending that my boys wouldn’t have school lunches now if they weren’t free – they would. Paying for them would make a big dent in my salary, but I would still do it. I would pay because I like the variety that is served at school. Because I think a hot lunch is better for them than the uninspiring sandwiches I would probably make. And because I like that they sit down as a school community and eat a proper meal. So you might be wondering what my problem is, Mrs May, when I would be willing to pay and when I know that those below a certain income threshold would still be entitled to a free hot lunch. My problem is this – that we have the chance to do this one small thing which can help give children, all children, regardless of income or whether or not their parents want to pay for school lunches, a positive start to their school lives. It is not dependent on whether they fall into the right income bracket, or whether their parents want to pay for it, there is no ‘free school meals’ stigma; it is just what they are all entitled to. A proper lunch in the middle of the day. All of them, at this crucial age, can get excited about roast dinner Wednesday, or pizza on Friday, or banana mousse or biscuits with sprinkles or sticky chicken or Scotty meatloaf….whatever that may be. (I must admit, I’m not too sure.)
And you’re talking about taking that away.
Please, Mrs May, please don’t tell me that providing breakfast will have the same positive results as the free lunches. Because the good thing about lunch, Mrs May, is that the children are already in school; and so are the staff. And don’t tell me that this is the only way that money can be put back into dwindling school budgets either. Because if your only way of funding schools properly is by taking school lunches away from 4-7 year olds then there is something seriously wrong.
One country I always enjoy reading about, Mrs May, is Finland – you know, that country with the really successful education system. In fact, as well as making some time to meet my boys and the school cook, I wondered whether you might find the time to pay a little visit to Finland? Because they just seem to have schooling and education and yes, even the lunches right. You see, Mrs May, in Finland every child of compulsory school age is entitled to a free school lunch. Every child. The Finnish National Board of Education says:
Finnish school legislation guarantees a well-balanced meal for each pupil every school day. The objective is to maintain and improve pupils’ health and well-being and to give them energy for their school work. (http://www.oph.fi/download/47657_school_meals_in_finland.pdf)
The rationale behind this is probably very simple – children learn better when they’ve had a proper lunch. And ultimately, surely it pays off to invest in education and in our young people? Doesn’t it?
So come and see us sometime, Mrs May. And then perhaps go and have a look at how they do things in Finland. And maybe after that, we can talk again about school lunches.