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Free school meals for all primary pupils in Cally

March 17, 2010

One of the nicest pre-election leaflets you've seen. Handed out at schools last week, it pictures some of the children of Labour councillors, including Paul's 3 year old, on the right (that caused some excitement at nursery, the next day).

Caledonian Ward’s five primary schools took a major leap forward earlier this month. Every child now gets a free school meal. More kids than ever are now taking school meals and benefit from a balanced, nutritious hot meal in the middle of each school day. But this innovation remains under some threat if the Lib Dems manage to form a new administration after the Town Hall elections on May 6th.

In February last year, a Labour budget was passed which mandated the Town Hall to introduce free school meals for all primary pupils in the Borough. The budget was agreed with the help of a rebel Lib Dem Councillor which resulted in a 24 to 22 votes margin. Despite stalling tactics by the Lib Dems, the scheme was piloted in 6 schools last Autumn and was extended to every primary school this month.

There were some complications to overcome. For example, the demand for school meals was expected to increase – and this has proved to be true. So, additional kitchen equipment has been installed in many schools.

Another glitch was identified because the “old” definition of free school meal eligibility is used by the Government to determine school funding levels. Put simply, this measure is used nationwide to identify the kids from households on low and very low incomes. Our MP, Emily Thornberry stepped-in and the Government agreed to use a “proxy” indicator based on voluntary, confidential income declarations provided by parents. At first, there was some anxiety that some parents might not do this.

But the response has been almost 100%. At Copenhagen School, for example, the Governors learned that every single parent had submitted their income declaration form weeks in advance of the free meals roll-out.

Free school meals has turned out to be a fierce contest between Labour and Liberal Democrats on the Council. We’re for it. They are against. Even more curious, last time we looked, the Conservatives in Islington were on our side … although we may have to check that again!

The very latest annual Council budget was voted on just 3 weeks ago. It increased the funding to make sure that free school meals are guaranteed in 2010-11. The Liberals admitted they didn’t have the votes to defeat this budget. Times like this makes us wonder who is running the Council (but that’s another story).

Charlynne Pullen says “The Lib Dems want free school meals to be ‘targeted’ using a means test. But that has already proven divisive in our schools. We believe all children should eat together equally, without discrimination. It’s an important part of the school day. And it make sure that kids eat well and can concentrate on learning throughout the day.”

“Free school meals have become a ‘universal’ benefit, just like London’s Freedom Pass. We have not heard the Liberals argue that free London-wide travel for the 60+ should be means tested. Nor access to most of the Council’s widely used services like libraries or parks. These are shared benefits which bind together a community and make sure that everyone has a stake”.

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