We are used to the idea that social services and health argue over whose responsibility (and, by association, whose budget) a particular task might be. We may not be so used to the same arguments being played out within education. School dinners are a particularly troublesome topic, as we have all learned over the past year or so, but for much longer they have been the battlefield for arguments over a school’s duty to provide a “social welfare” service over and above its educative responsibilities. It was particularly disappointing, then, when Hull Council reversed its decision to provide free school meals for all primary aged children in September.
Thankfully, we have moved beyond the debate about whether schools should provide a hot meal for children, with an acceptance that this may be the only meal of the day for some and this has itself contributed to the growth in breakfast clubs within the extended schools agenda but also predating it. Raised blood sugar levels produce better concentration and improved attainment.
What we’re still not very good at is deciding what to do about the large debts accruing to some families. Once it is established that a family is entitled to free school meals they can be helped to complete forms, reminded regularly and offered schemes to pay or even write off the debt. There are, however, at least two other groups of parents giving school bursars regular nightmares.
First, the parents who simply do not pay and fail to provide an alternative. While the council’s debt collection service grinds into action, should the school offer a basic cheese sandwich and a glass of milk? Which budget is this coming from? What is the impact on the child in being so singled out? The other main group will comprise those families with no access to public funds. Do they get the sandwich treatment as well? A brave headteacher or bursar will write them off against an absent “free dinner child” or indeed fail to count them at all in the light of the excess food prepared each day. Where meals are contracted out, however, or with a less enlightened management, this is more difficult.
It is not up to schools to judge a child’s entitlement to enjoy the benefits of a life in Britain. Neither should it be up to them to decide who eats and who doesn’t.
Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker