Labour’s free school meals plan ‘would cost £950m’

9 May 17

Plans to provide free school meals for all primary pupils would cost £950m and deliver limited benefits, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found.

Today the IFS has published research into the Labour policy proposal, which the party announced in April.

It warned that the programme’s costs would be “substantial” and in the context of “constrained public spending” alternatives should be considered.

Under the proposals, Labour has promised to extend this free meal entitlement to all children in Years 3 to 6 (ages 7-11) in England in order to “benefit the educational attainment and health of all children” – a benefit which is already available for disadvantaged children.

Labour said it would pay for this by charging VAT on private schools fees, when they announced their policy they said it would cost between £700m and £900m a year.

Research by the Fabian Society in 2010 suggested that introducing VAT on private school fees could raise around £1.5bn annually.

The government also currently provides free school meals to all children in reception through Year 2 in English schools.

Today’s report states: “Universal programmes can bring benefits, such as removing the stigma that might otherwise prevent eligible students from taking up free meals.

“However, universal benefits are also costly: rather than targeting funds at the most disadvantaged, they spread the money across all children, including those whose families are currently paying for school meals.”

The study examined a 2012 pilot scheme and estimated that 40% of the total cost of the pilot was spent on providing free meals to students whose parents would otherwise have paid for a school lunch. 

It found that although pupils involved in the trial made around two months’ additional progress over a two-year period compared to similar children in other areas these benefits would “come at a significant cost and might not lead to similar gains (if extended nationally)”.

The IFS state extending the scheme would cost £800m, there would also be one-time investment costs needed to refit kitchens which could cost as much as £225m.

The report notes that when the government rolled out the free infant meals programme is spent £170m over two years to renovating school kitchens and cafeterias.

In addition to these costs the report states there would “public finance implications” for devolved nations despite this policy only affecting English schools because it would affect the block grants given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through the Barnett Formula.

IFS said this could result in £150m extra funding for the devolved nations each year, plus one-time additional funding of around £45m related to the upfront costs.

This would bring the total cost of extending free school meals to all primary pupils to around £950m each year, with upfront costs of as much as £270m.

Researches argue that alternatives such as offering free breakfast clubs as is the case in Wales and as trialed in England might be a cheaper and more effective way to improve both education and health outcomes for children.

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