Mayor Sadiq Khan has defended his plan to provide free school meals for all
By Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter
Sadiq Khan has defended his plan to provide free school meals for all primary school children in London, after his political opponents said the scheme was too unfocused.
The Mayor of London said that making the scheme universal will mean no primary-age child will feel “the shame and embarrassment of being labelled a ‘free school meal child’”.
The year-long scheme will cover all primary school children in the capital for the 2023/24 academic year. It is expected to benefit around 270,000 primary school children who do not already receive free school meals, and save families around £440 per child across the year.
But Conservative Assembly Members (AMs) at City Hall said the plan should instead provide targeted support to lower income families across both primary and secondary schools.
Emma Best AM, the Conservatives’ health spokesperson at City Hall, said: “While I welcome more children having access to free school meals this year, the reality is that many lower income families will be hit hard by a 57 per cent increase in Sadiq Khan’s council tax since 2016 and his £12.50 daily Ulez charge.
“This one-off package has completely missed secondary school pupils, meaning that lower income parents of older children are paying for wealthier families’ younger children. If the Mayor genuinely wants to help the poorest families, he should be focusing on those most in need across all schools.”
Defending his plan during a visit to his old school – Fircroft Primary in Tooting – Mr Khan said: “I welcome my political opponents joining the campaign for free school meals.
“If their criticism is [that] it should be secondary schools as well, then I agree with them, and they should be joining me in lobbying the government for there to be provision of free school meals in primary schools and secondary schools.
“I’ve always been frank and candid with Londoners. I’ve managed to find £130 million, which is how much it’s going to cost us to provide a free school meal to every child in a primary school across the city.
“I know though from personal experience, the shame and embarrassment of being labelled a ‘free school meal child’, when the majority of your mates aren’t receiving a free school meal.
“I don’t want any child in London in 2023 to be feeling that embarrassment, that stigma. That’s why I think there are some things that [people] should be eligible [for] on a universal basis. The state pension is a good example. Access to a GP, access to healthcare – and I think access to a nutritious, hot healthy meal as well.”
Mr Khan insisted he was not driven by the “optics” of the policy, despite the fact he will be facing re-election in May 2024.
“My motivation is to support families when they need it the most, not optics and not politics,” he said.
“I can genuinely say that a free school meal was a game-changer to me. It provided a lifeline to my siblings and myself and it gave my parents breathing space.
“Estimates are [that] there are 2.7 million Londoners living in poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates there are 210,000 children living in poverty not eligible for free school meals.”
A number of London borough councils – including Newham, Islington, Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Westminster – already offer free school meals for all primary-age children. Mr Khan said those boroughs would still receive funding from the City Hall scheme.
“We’ll be making sure that they get the financial support that we’re providing other boroughs, and we’ll be working with them to see what additional help they can give to children in their boroughs,” he said.
“What we’re not going to do is penalise those boroughs that have done the right thing.”
Tabitha, a 10-year-old pupil at Fircroft, said she agreed with Mr Khan on the scheme being universal: “I think he’s correct, because it’s helping parents to not stress as much as they would… because the cost of living is very high.”
10-year-old Sicily, another pupil, said: “Everyone should get the right to school meals. They say the poorest families should be the ones [to receive them], but I think everyone should.”
She added: “If there’s the same meal for everyone, there’s no hierarchy.”
Izzy Sidwell, a parent at Fircroft and co-chair of the school’s PTA, said: “I used to teach and you can really tell the difference when a child’s not eaten. It can be put down to behaviour, lifestyle, but often, those kids are hungry.
“For parents to know that their children will be able to eat, be able to have a healthy meal, I think it’s great.”