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School meals and child welfare in times of crisis: the past and future of welfare policy

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On 16 June 2020, following a campaign spearheaded by the Manchester United and England footballer, Marcus Rashford, the UK Government announced what many observers regarded as a humiliating U-turn over the principle of extending the provision of free school meals into the school holidays. Although receiving rather less attention, the Scottish and Welsh Governments also announced changes in policy, and the Northern Irish Government agreed to consider the matter further. These decisions were presented as responses to the specific circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than a general recognition of the principle that hungry children might require food regardless of school term times. The nature of the debate was framed by a historical understanding of the provision of school meals as an educational measure. However, the history of school meal provision also demonstrates the extent to which changes in circumstances can lead to dramatic changes in policy.

The first legislation for the provision of school meals in England and Wales was the Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906. The Act’s primary aim was to enable local education authorities to collaborate with voluntary organisations to provide meals for those whose parents could afford to pay, but it also allowed the authorities to use a small increase in local tax rates to provide free meals to those who were deemed ‘unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided them’. As such, this part of the Act was clearly intended as an educational measure for the benefit of children who might otherwise be too hungry to learn.

Neither the Education (Provision of Meals) Act nor the Education (Administrative Provisions) Act of 1907, which obliged local education authorities in England and Wales to make arrangements for school medical inspections and gave them the power to make arrangements for medical treatment, applied to Scotland or Ireland. However, when similar legislation was introduced to Scotland in 1908, it went somewhat further. Although the Education (Scotland) Act was still an educational measure, it also empowered Scottish school boards ‘to make such provision … as they deem necessary’ for the provision of both food and clothing ‘during such period while the child is under obligation to attend school’. As John Stewart has explained, the new Act meant that Scotland ‘moved within a remarkably short time … from a situation of exclusion to one of being “in advance” of the rest of the United Kingdom’ with respect to this particular policy area.

The provision of free school meals in both Scotland and England and Wales was highly controversial at the time. Supporters regarded them as a form of social investment as well as a matter of social justice, but the legal theorist, Albert Venn Dicey, complained that the separation of the provision of school meals from the poor law threatened to undermine established principles of parental responsibility. However, despite their symbolic importance, these changes had limited practical impact. Throughout the interwar years, the quality of school meals remained poor; children who received free school meals were separated from those whose parents were paying; and the number of children who received free meals rarely exceeded more than four per cent of the total number of children in attendance.

The limited growth of the school meals programmes before 1939 was transformed by the outbreak of the Second World War. At the start of the war, the Government introduced a nationwide rationing scheme in the hope of ensuring that all members of the population were adequately fed, but it soon became apparent that this might not be sufficient to ensure that schoolchildren necessarily received their fair share. The government was also conscious of the need to ensure that working mothers did not have to return home at lunchtime to feed their school-aged children. As a result, the proportion of children below the age of eleven who received meals at school in England and Wales increased from 4.4 per cent in 1938/9 to more than 34 per cent in June 1945; the number of children receiving meals in Scotland more than doubled; and the distinction between those who received free meals and those whose parents paid for them was abandoned. As the Editor of the medical journal, Public Health, explained, ‘the new “push” for school feeding … is really a national effort to overcome the deficit of the [ration book….  It] shows the [Government’s] determination … to ensure an approved meal for the schoolchildren … and neither in the Lords nor the Commons was a word said about the delegation of parental responsibility’.

During the current pandemic, several commentators have argued that the disease itself, and the arrangements which have been put in place in response to it, should encourage us to think again about the assumptions on which a great deal of recent economic and social policy has been based. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have even referred explicitly to Britain’s experience during the Second World War and its impact on the development of the ‘classic’ welfare state. The history of the school meals programme provides one example of the ways in which an exogenous shock, or radical change in circumstances, can lead to dramatic and lasting policy changes. The circumstances associated with the Second World War and those associated with the pandemic are very different, but the current situation at least provides us with an opportunity to reconsider some of the assumptions which have dominated policy-making in recent years. One of the factors behind Marcus Rashford’s campaign was the desire to prevent hungry children from having to use foodbanks, but if this was wrong during a pandemic, why should it be right at other times? To what extent do the particular features of the present crisis raise more general questions about the ways in which we respond to poverty ordinarily?

Professor Harris also appears on the latest edition of the Recovery podcast, exploring key moments in history when the world recovered from a major crisis or shock.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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