The number of state-funded primary school children eligible for free school meals is growing, rising from 13.8% five years ago to 23.1% in the last academic year. I know the Food Foundation has highlighted that 26% of households with children have experienced food insecurity in September, which has increased by 50% since April.
Child poverty wastes potential and harms our country’s success and prosperity. More importantly, it hurts children, not just in the future, but as they grow up. It harms their health and holds back their learning. It damages their sense of self-esteem and wellbeing. This Government must rededicate itself to tackling the scourge of child poverty.
The Government did not announce any changes to its free school meals policy at the Autumn Statement. Previously it has said it believes the current threshold level for free school meals is the right one but that it keeps eligibility under review. I have pressed the Government on this issue (see here).
I do not believe it is right that so many children are coming to school hungry, which is why I am supporting calls for breakfast clubs for every primary school child in England, giving them a healthy meal to start their day (see here). We must also ensure that families eligible for free school meals are supported, empowering parents to choose the food and supplies needed to help them battle rising prices.
The Government Food Strategy, published in June, could have been an opportunity to ensure that every family has access to healthy, affordable and sustainable food. However, there were no concrete proposals in it to tackle the major issues facing this country and so I questioned the Government about this in Parliament (see here). With prices soaring in the shops and on energy bills, I am worried this shows a lack of vision or a plan for Britain. Our children deserve better.
As poverty has risen over the last decade, efforts to close the educational attainment gap have faltered. Longer term, I believe we need to remove tax breaks for private schools and put the £1.7 billion into state schools instead, to hire more teachers and invest in all our children.