Stormont’s odd debate on free school dinners. “Whatever you do, don’t mention child poverty.”

I cannot think of another polity in which a discussion on the increase in the uptake of free school meals could almost entirely avoid any direct reference to the possible corresponding increase in child poverty.

I say possible, because in yesterday’s private member’s debate on free school meals was based on barely any data concerning the drivers behind the increase beyond a ministerial o extend free meals to independent sector (affecting about 700 pupils)

The debate was scheduled to start at 3.45pm, but it  began at 1pm. Clearly a spare was found by dumping some earlier scheduled piece of business, and everything shuffled forward.

So to the debate. Chris Hazard, one of those who laid it before house introduced the motion. He took his first interruption from Mervyn Storey, the DUP’s Education spokesman, who decided on his own bizarre tack away from poverty:

…can he maybe get to one of the cruxes of the issue? As a result of spending that money, what has been the benefit to pupils in their educational journey through school?

Later in the debate Jonathan Craig, followed that logic with this odd twist

I have with listened with interest to what everybody said about the point that you will not listen as well on an empty stomach. The reverse of that is that, if you eat far too much in your free school meal, you might be a bit sleepy by the time that you get to the teacher, so we need to watch out for that one.

The SDLP’s Sean Rogers offered to an amendment which broached the otherwise unmentionable:

Leave out all after ‘recognises’ and insert:

“the important role of nutrition in the educational attainment of children; and, in light of increased financial pressures on working families, calls on the Minister of Education to explore ways in which to extend access to free school meals to more children.”

Oblique enough, but in the ball-park of reality at least. “Good effort” perhaps, as the deputy speaker told his party colleague. It clearly went over poor old Trevor Lunn’s head, who said:

…the motion and the amendment were so similar that “you could hardly support one and not support the other”

It fell to the DUP’s Robin Newton to point out to Trevor that “Mr Rogers has brought to the motion a wider view of the problem, and brought other issues into play.”

So what was it all about? From oral questions to the Education minister, we know he has accepted recommendations that free school meals be extended post primary schools in time for the school year 2014-15. That will bring another 15,000 pupils, if the work is done in time.

There is no sign that his department have yet arrived at the formula that will make that happen. [A case of living in the future, perhaps? – Ed]

In that decision, the hand of the minister is being forced by Westminster’s welfare reforms. His plain choice was either to expand free school meals to all secondary schools or get rid of it altogether. Given such a choice, he’s taken the logical way out.

In the end, the SDLP amendment was taken. But this debate highlights the way politicians on the hill have allowed themselves to be bound in by arguments over instruments rather than focusing on making new policy choices.

By focusing on the instrument, and almost completely ignoring social context, it is either good news (as several SF MLAs chose to put it) because ‘we are giving out more freebies’, or caught out making faux arguments about the negative effects of feeding hungry children.

The fact is that an increase in the uptake of free school meals is an indication that more people are struggling economically. Anywhere else on these island, it would be: focus on the problem first: choose your instrument afterwards.

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  • Pete Baker


    A related news story today

    All pupils at infant schools in England are to get free school lunches from next September, Lib Dem leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg has announced.

    The change – for children in reception, year one and year two – will save parents about £400 a year per child.

    Targeting infants would ensure “every child gets the chance in life they deserve”, teach healthy eating habits and boost attainment, Mr Clegg said.

    Money is being provided for Wales, Scotland and N Ireland to do likewise.

    But as education is a devolved issue, it is up to those running schools there to decide whether to spend the money on free lunches.

  • Mick Fealty

    Aha, so it’s thank you Mr Cameron.. is it?

  • Pete Baker

    Any money sent this way will have to get past the NI Finance Minister first…

  • No, it’s thank you Nick Clegg. The Conservatives got an equal amount to spend on vouchers, to announce at their conference.

  • Old Mortality

    You can take the horse to water…. A nutritious school meal is not something that is guaranteed to appeal to the sub-proletariat, even if it is free. The money might be more usefully spent elsewhere, or better still, not spent at all.

  • Rory Carr

    A man could scarcely ever be disappointed to find examples of complete lack of awareness were he to search among reports of interventions by DUP politicians.

    Malthus gave away his true motivation in the horror he expressed at the thought of the poor undeservedly engaging in carnal delight, his DUP heirs today (and our dear subscriber, Old Mortality) seem more concerned at the detrimental effects a healthy meal might have upon the children of the poor. In order to save these wretches from the sin of over-indulgence they now must wrack their brains in search of a way to avoid allocating funds in their direction.

  • FuturePhysicist

    focus on the problem first: choose your instrument afterwards.

    So you assume there isn’t any problems with the instruments?

  • Mick Fealty

    The opposite FP.

  • aquifer

    Direct aid to children bypassing the loan sharks booze stores rent collectors and miserly local private sector employers. Great.

    And did anyone mention it boosting local competitiveness?

    It does that too when it prevents people who are not being paid what they are worth going in search of better wages in GB.

    Extend it to secondary kids quick before the welfare reform tsunami hits.

  • Mick Fealty

    We’ve had this statement for Slugger directly from the Minister via his department:

    The following is a statement from Education Minister John O’Dowd:

    “The basis of the initial posting, in the words of the author, is that the increase in the uptake of free school meals is an indication that more people are struggling economically. In the recent Assembly debate I did state that the economic situation played its part in increasing the numbers eligible.

    “However this is only a part of the story. A key reason for the rise in those entitled is down to the extension in the eligibility criteria implemented by my predecessor, Caitríona Ruane. In 2010 it was extended to children in primary and pre-school whose families are in receipt of working tax credit and have an annual income of less than £16,190. This was phased in over two years and has seen a growth in those receiving free school meals to 79,800 in 2012/13.

    “In June, as you rightly point out, I announced that this would be extended to children at post-primary school from next September, making an estimated 15,000 more children eligible. Contrary to your claim the criteria have not been worked out, the criteria which will apply from September 2014 have been established and are as follows – the parent receives Working Tax Credit and has an annual taxable income not exceeding an amount determined by the Department (currently £16,190) and the pupil attends a nursery, primary or post-primary school.

    “These moves, and the consequent rise in those receiving free school meals, reflect the decision to target this much needed support – which has both health and educational benefits for the children concerned – to more low income families than was previously the case.

    “It is in line with my Department’s twin aims of raising educational outcomes and closing the gap in performance between those most and those least disadvantaged and will ensure those from lower income households receive the support they need to make the most of their time at school and to fulfil their potential.

    “In terms of welfare reform, I have made clear that my over-riding objective at that time will be to ensure those who receive free school meals at present continue to receive this important passported benefit.

    “This is a prime example of focussing on the problem first, drawing on research evidence to identify appropriate and effective interventions and using the instruments at our disposal to solve it.”

  • Seamuscamp

    The English announcement is what it is ie a promise at a party conference by a leader who isn’t trusted to keep his promises about something to be done in a couple of years time. The problem is in the detail. For example, the primary schools round here are very short of space; class sizes up to 40+; kitchens, staffing and equipment barely adequate for current demand. They have been told that they will be getting less money and will be expected to find savings, even though the rolls are expected to grow significantly – the cohort is swelling in advance of a proposed housing expansion of 400 houses.

    There is no doubt that feeding chilldren properly ought to be a priority but it is not an excuse to ignore other pressing problems (like leaking roofs; and growing class sizes; and prioritising so-called free schools for the middle classes who can’t afford private education).

  • FuturePhysicist

    The fact is that an increase in the uptake of free school meals is an indication that more people are struggling economically. Anywhere else on these island, it would be: focus on the problem first: choose your instrument afterwards.

    The issue O’Dowd is saying is that more people have been recorded struggling as a result of a criteria change to include part time workers on WTCs, that doesn’t imply any change in the economy. The economic issue is where these initial funds are drawn from.