There has been some discussion this week about the Tory plans to abolish universal free lunches for nursery children and instead offer a free breakfast to all primary school children in England and Wales. Amongst other things, they've been accused of getting their sums wrong (again) - apparently, they've budgeted all of 7p per meal, where 25p is realistic (just barely - apparently 85p would be a much more likely target figure).
However, this ties into something that has been on my mind for a fairly long time - tragically, we have rather too many children in the country whose only good meal of the day may turn out to be the free lunch they get at school (which makes the school holidays a disaster for them, but that's a whole other issue). And it's hardly surprising that hungry children don't make for good learners.
So, yeah, a free breakfast for school kids is a good thing. And I also agree with making it universal - amongst other things, it means that those families just on the wrong side of the "free school meals" threshold don't now need to make a decision about whether their kids get the 'luxury' of having breakfast. (There are other reasons why universal benefits are a good thing. But I think that one is probably enough for now.)
However, in light of the recent reporting, I can now provide some numbers...
Apparently, there are 4.16 million kids in state-run primary schools, and the budget for a free school lunch is £2.30 per meal. And by my count there are 196 school days a year (technically, that's Scotland, but I expect the figure down south is reasonably close to this). If we allow 70p per breakfast (partly because 25p just ain't enough, but mostly because it makes for a nice round number), then by my calculation it would cost approximately £2,446,080,000, or just under £2.5 billion, to provide every primary school-age child in England and Wales with a free breakfast and lunch. (Actually, I'd ideally prefer to boost that to £4.5 billion and cover every single day, not just school days. And, actually, I'd also quite like to expand it to secondary schools as well. But all that's rather too far... for now.)
Now, in return for this you get a generation of kids who get to concentrate on learning rather than being hungry. You get to significantly improve overall nutrition (because there are those families in the "just above the threshold" group, and also there are families that are monetarily better off but very time-poor; in both cases they have to put together what meals they can, which are probably not the best - replace that with a free meal, and it's likely the junk food will be abandoned in short order). And it's likely that things like behaviour and attendance improve as well.
Now, it's fair to point out that £2.5 billion is a lot of money, and it's valid to question where the money is coming from, what else is going to be sacrificed to pay for it, etc etc. But what isn't a question is whether the country can afford it - it's a question of priorities - do we want to invest the money in this, or is it better spent somewhere else?