On free school meals, I actually agree with Michael Gove

It was the former Tory Education secretary who proposed we should end the VAT exemption for private school fees in order to fund policies that will benefit all children.

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Today, the Labour Party announced that when we return to government, we will be providing free school meals to every primary school child in England, and we will fund this by ending the tax break for private school fees.

This policy owes much to the work done by Labour councils and groups like the Fabian Society. But it is not just our policy though. In fact, there’s a surprising cross-party consensus behind both elements of our plan.

It was former Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove who proposed earlier this year that we should end the VAT exemption for private school fees in order to fund policies that will benefit all children, not just the privileged few.

Quite frankly, it is one of the most sensible education policies I have heard him propose. Theresa May’s door may be firmly shut to him these days but I will listen to good ideas wherever they come from.

And he was absolutely right. That is why our plan will end this subsidy in order to provide free school meals to every child.

I won’t claim that is a new idea either – but again, it is a good one.

The School Food Plan commissioned under the then coalition government proposed a detailed plan for all primary school students to be provided with a free school meal. They presented compelling evidence, also supported by other independent studies, that this would have significant educational and health benefits for all children.

They drew on a number of pilot schemes that the previous Labour government had implemented, as well as in Labour-run Islington council which chose to provide free school meals to all local primary school pupils. The independent panel concluded that “the benefits were clear”. The academic boost from universal free school meals was even bigger than that from the literacy hour. Every head teacher the panel met was impressed by the results and parents in the pilot areas were more likely to describe their children’s school meals as healthy and high-quality.

The coalition only implemented half of the report’s recommendation, however, providing free school meals only for infants rather than all primary pupils.

A Labour government will not leave this work half-finished. The pundits might be surprised to see me agreeing with rival politicians as different Michael Gove and Nick Clegg but I make no apology for it. I am determined to take the best ideas we can to improve the life chances, the health, and the educational outcomes of children across the country, and that is what this policy would do. 

 

Angela Rayner is Labour MP for Ashton-under-Lyne and shadow education secretary.