How NOT to spend £800m on education

Imagine for a moment that you have £800 million to spend on improving education in the UK. What would you spend it on?

Perhaps you feel Sure Start has been slashed and would spend the money there.

Perhaps you think school funding is inadequate and would give it direct to schools.

Or perhaps you’d restore grants for students.

There are other ideas of course, depending on your priorities. Friends on twitter suggested more money on attracting and retaining good teachers. Careers advice and mental health services are both regularly cited as underfunded Cinderella services, worthy of investment.

I’m not convinced I would put “spend it all on free lunches for primary pupils” on the shortlist.

As ideas go it’s not a terrible one. Better nutrition and not being hungry is undoubtedly good for children (thought I’d argue free breakfasts are a better bet). But is it really a top spending priority right now?

For a start, it doesn’t help the group most in need of additional public services, as the poorest children already get a free lunch.

And of course, it’s not the easiest policy to implement. The coalition’s 2014 policy of free meals for infants was a little chaotic. It cost around £200 million to upgrade kitchens for a start. In some places such upgrades were logistically impossible to implement, resulting in outside caterers being called in to provide the meals. And as is so often the case, small schools took a hit, finding it difficult to cover costs from the funding given their higher per-pupil overheads.

All in all I think it’s safe to say free school meals for all primary school pupils is NOT the right way to spend £800 million on education.

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