“Be careful what you wish for – because you might end up not always liking what you get” is a common enough sentiment, but one that hardly seems apt to what on the surface is very good news.
The Welsh government appears to have answered the prayers of child poverty campaigners by pledging to extend the allowance for Year 7 pupils already entitled to free school meals to provide for a school breakfast as well.
While confined to just one year of secondary school education, the initiative represents a serious start at tackling the burgeoning problem of food deprivation at secondary school level. Currently in Wales, as opposed to England, there is no statutory provision for universal free school meals (FSM) for infants. Instead, the Welsh government continues to tie free school meal entitlement to the benefits system, but also unlike in England, it extends the offer of free breakfast in school to all primary school pupils (although six local councils in Wales apply some charges to parents for breakfast supervisory staffing).
The announcement made early in the new year has been strongly welcomed by teachers – some of whom have reportedly in some instances spent their own money buying hungry children breakfast – as well as those battling to tackle growing child inequalities and particularly health inequalities.
“This is a definite step in the right direction, which is to help children eat a healthy nutritious breakfast, something that will help them concentrate and attain in class and ultimately reduce health inequalities,” maintains Emma Holmes, clinical lead for Public Health Dietetics at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board.
Research by Loughborough University published in May last year showed that Wales was the only UK country where child poverty continued to increase in 2018; in its case by 1%, suggesting that 29.3% of children in the principality were living in poverty during the period 2017-2018.
However, the announcement on 8th January 2020 to extend the breakfast scheme to all Year 7 pupils eligible for a free school meal took much of the school food industry by surprise. The £450,000 funding was initially envisaged as a more modest scheme when it was first announced last December, with a gradual roll-out so that potential problems could be addressed before full-scale implementation.
It follows on from a further announcement in December of £1.8m for the much-lauded School Holiday Enrichment Programme (SHEP), which is aimed at providing meals, entertainment and education for children aged between seven and 11 living in deprived areas of Wales during school holidays.
While Labour continues to dominate as the main Welsh political party after the recent UK election, the overall Tory victory in the UK and its strong showing in Wales, with a more than doubling of its previous seats, has undoubtedly changed the political landscape. It places further pressure on the socialists to radically improve the life outcomes of its increasingly disadvantaged electorate, many of whom have felt abandoned by their political masters.
So far, the Welsh government has been short on details about its latest child poverty intervention. There is little in the way of information over how many Year 7 pupils are likely to be eligible for the allowance and over how much additional money will be available to them for a school breakfast in the morning. All a press spokesman for the Welsh government would confirm was that the scheme was aimed at preventing hungry pupils from using their lunchtime allowance to buy breakfast or mid-morning snacks at school, and that further details would be announced when confirmed.
“There is increasing evidence of young people using their free school meal allowance to buy food at breakfast time or during morning break because they are arriving at school hungry without having eaten a proper breakfast,” the spokesperson said.
There are, however, several concerns by schools and their catering providers over the economic viability of the scheme as it currently stands. If the scheme remains confined to just Year 7 pupils, it could prove economically unviable, especially in schools where numbers of FSM pupils are relatively low.
While there is also growing concern about children arriving in school without having had breakfast, detailed statistics by Cardiff University’s DECIPHer (Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement) unit – one of the most extensive studies of its kind – show that at least 52% of pupils aged between 11 and 16 continue to eat breakfast before reaching school. Moreover, among the 22% of pupils who skip breakfast all together, family poverty is not always the reason. Over-zealous use of social media and other electronic media frequently results in sleep deprivation and the inability to get up in time to eat before heading off to school.
While any increase in money for children entitled to FSM is welcome, there is also growing concern about the numbers of children who fall outside the benefit’s scope. Since the introduction of Universal Credit in the UK, only families with incomes below £7,400 are eligible, leaving huge swathes of the ‘working poor’ outside its remit.
In a recent report, the Welsh Assembly’s cross-party equality committee has called for a doubling of the income threshold for FSM eligibility to £14,000 of earned income. The committee’s recommendation follows its inquiry into the possibility of devolving the welfare system from Westminster, which currently controls the benefits system paid out to close on half of the people living in Wales.
Not least, the extension of school breakfast provision provides something of a challenge for Wales’s school food industry, given that the details of the proposed scheme, including numbers of pupils involved, are still not known.