The withdrawal of hot food and companionship from a child as a form of punishment, especially a child who may rely upon that meal as the only form of nutrition in their day, seems like a cruel and discriminatory act by anyone. And especially if that person is a headteacher, who is entrusted by parents to look after the wellbeing of their children during the school day.
That’s why it was disturbing to see news break last week that the headteacher at one of the Tory Government’s flagship free schools – Ms Birbalsingh of Michaela Community School – had implemented a punitive policy. In a letter to a parent, she threatened their child with a basic lunch of a sandwich and a piece of fruit and isolation from their friends and peers during lunchtime, all because the parents had fallen into arrears with the weekly school meal payments.
Whilst the child in question was not having food withdrawn completely, they were still being punished for something completely out of their control. This goes against Department for Education (DfE) guidance, which states that a child can be punished for something they have done wrong, but never for the actions of another.
Birbalsingh later said this policy does not apply to families with money problems. But the policy this letter prescribes is a manifestation of the failure of our ever-more fragmented school system which has little, or no, local oversight or accountability. The policy direction of successive Tory Education Secretaries since 2010 has been to push ahead on their free school and acadamisation programme, effectively giving our schools ever more freedom to do what they like.
The sad thing is, the Michaela Community School has an otherwise excellent lunchtime policy of family eating. All the children sit with the teachers, serve each other and then eat the heathy, hot dinners over interesting set topics of conversation. Reading about this made me think of how impressed Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent would be. It embodies the cultural shift that was called for in the School Food Plan which they authored in 2013. But for the school to send such a message to the parents totally undermines all this good work. It highlights the problem with the Tories’ free school project, which gives schools the freedom to enact Victorian-style policies.
It is because of incidents such as this that I have been a tireless advocate for universal free school meals. This is not only because of the education, wellbeing and behavioural benefits, but also because it eliminates the issue of parents struggling to pay for school meals while mitigating the chance of children being identified as poor.
I hope the new Education Secretary will look at some of the now well-documented issues with her Government’s free school programme, and rethink her Department’s strategy. But I also hope she takes the time over the summer to read the School Food Plan from cover to cover, so she is fully up to speed on the school food agenda. She can then come back in September and get on with ensuring all children, regardless of their circumstances, are fed well during the school day.