That there is no such thing as a free lunch is as true in 1975, when Milton Friedman published his famous book of the same name, as it is now, in 2023. Unfortunately, Sadiq Khan and the London Assembly don’t seem to have paid much attention to this work in their latest plan to use £135 million in taxpayer funds to roll out universal school lunches across all London primary schools. This is not just bad economics; it is a fundamental misuse of resources that will lead to all students across London being worse off.
It is hard to argue against the extension of free school lunches to those whose parents cannot afford them. It is a way of ensuring children from all backgrounds are able to succeed in school – it is, after all, difficult to learn if one is constantly hungry and thinking about their next meal. However, a safety net already exists for children for whom this is the case – all students in the UK whose household income falls below £7,400 are eligible for free school lunches.
The Mayor claims that this threshold is inadequate and as a result, children are needlessly going hungry. Even if we accept this, it still does not justify universal school lunches – there is no reason why London could not just increase the threshold to account for inflation and higher living costs in the capital while still means-testing this benefit. Simply extending free school meals to all those eligible for universal credit eligibility would increase by 20 per cent in some boroughs and even 10 per cent across London. There is no reason why the Mayor could not target these children through the extension of means-tests free school meals, with remaining funds used to support schools in teaching, better equipment, and extracurricular activities.
Campaigners claim that means-testing not only takes up resources but also singles out and stigmatises certain students. But means-testing would be relatively simple and could be done through an automated system. London need not create its own means-testing system, it could piggyback off the Government’s and accept UC receipts as a means of proving eligibility for the scheme. Their critique assumes that free school lunches are the only way of highlighting that a student is poor. When I was at school, lunch credits were loaded onto a student’s account and there was no way of knowing who a recipient of free school lunches was. If such a stigma exists, free school lunches will not eliminate this, for there are many other markers of socioeconomic status, including school uniform wear, extra-curriculars, tastes, habits, and mannerisms -what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed the habitus.
If Sadiq Khan is serious about helping London’s poorest children, he would do well, in future years, to means-test the benefit. Without means-testing, £135 million would be diverted from actual teaching – and it is here that the poorest will suffer. Wealthier children need not be affected – their parents have always ensured that they receive additional tutoring, have access to well-stocked libraries, and most importantly, are imbued with a sense of confidence and curiosity that leads to academic success. It is only by ensuring that schools focus on their core function of providing education that poorer students will have a meaningful chance to succeed and move up the ladder.