THE WELSH Government will invest £25m in schools’ kitchen and dining infrastructure, as part of plans to roll out free school meals to all primary school children in Wales.
First Minister Mark Drakeford made the announcement at a joint press conference with coalition partner Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price on Wednesday (March 30).
The policy is part of the Co-operation Agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru, which will see free school meals extended to all primary school pupils over the next three years.
From September, some of the youngest children in primary schools will begin receiving free school meals as the policy is introduced in a phased way.
Working with schools and local authorities, the Welsh Government will plan and prepare the infrastructure needed for all primary aged pupils to receive free school meals by September 2024.
Revenue funding of up to £200m has been set aside for local authorities to deliver the commitment, with £40m to be provided in 2022-23, £70m in 2023-24 and £90m in 2024-25.
Mark Drakeford said: “Together we have made a joint commitment that no child in Wales should go hungry and that every child in our primary schools will be able to have a free school meal.
“We are facing an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis. We know younger children are more likely to be living in relative income poverty, which is why the youngest of our learners will be the first to benefit.”
Adam Price said: “From talking to other parents, it’s very clear that families need as much support with living costs as possible, especially given the additional financial challenges people are currently facing.
“This announcement begins the roll-out of a policy that will make a real difference to many across the country.
“It is an important step towards fulfilling one of our key pledges in the Co-operation Agreement and an example of how constructive joint working is making a real difference on the ground.
“Removing the stigma associated with having a free lunch will mean that children receive a healthy meal at a formative stage in their development – hungry children cannot learn or achieve their true potential.”
Teachers’ union NEU Cymru welcomed the news.
David Evans, Wales Secretary for the National Education Union Cymru, said: “NEU Cymru members have been supportive of free school meals for primary school children, so this money to support capital investment should help local authorities make this policy a reality come September.
“Children need access to healthy food to support them in their learning, so extra support is welcome, and is in line with our asks ahead of the Senedd elections last year.
“There are challenges to the roll out of these plans, but this is an opportunity for local authorities to step up and support schools in delivering on free school meals for children in primary schools.
“For those parents with stark choices in such uncertain times, as the cost-of-living soars, a chance to provide meals in school is vitally important.
“Capital spend is important – we need to make sure kitchens are up to the job, and schools have enough room to provide for extra lunch sittings. Staff will be important too.
“We hope this policy will increase take up of free school meals, because removing the stigma and making sure children are well fed can only be a good thing for education here in Wales.
“Hopefully, Free School Meals can be expanded in secondary schools too, to make sure no children are going hungry.”
Laura Doel, director of school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru supported the Welsh Government’s commitment but observed it brought significant challenges.
“School leaders support the mission of the Welsh Government to ensure no child goes hungry. Children who are hungry cannot learn as well as they might be able to.
“Free school meals at least guarantee that children get one nutritious meal a day.
“On a practical level, however, there are some challenges that will have to be worked through to ensure schools are able to deliver on this pledge.
“Some schools that provide their own meals are not equipped or resourced to provide a meal to all children, some schools outsource their catering provision and there are issues with the supply chain that need to be addressed, and for others there are issues with capacity if meals are produced and brought into a setting from neighbouring schools.
“Even with this significant investment, we need to be realistic about what schools will be able to deliver given that we are only a term away from the beginning of the rollout.
“What we don’t want is schools being blamed if they are unable to comply with this plan from September when they are already dealing with so many other government priorities, especially given that there has been very little lead-in time to this new policy.”
Welsh Conservative Shadow Education Minister Laura Anne Jones MS gave a particularly bizarre take on the announcement: “At a time when there is a cost-of-living crisis, it is totally wrong for Labour and Plaid Cymru to collude to give free school meals to the children of millionaires when it has never been more essential to target support at those who need it most.”
It is not clear which millionaires will benefit from the provision, as it applies to state schools only. Referencing putative (and possibly imaginary) millionaire’s children benefiting disproportionately from the system seems to imply Ms Jones favours abandoning other universal non-means-tested benefits. For example, the state old age pension and child benefit.
Ms Jones continued with a rather more focussed point: “Labour and Plaid’s desire to chase headlines has also blinded them to the implications this would have for those from deprived backgrounds as it distorts how the Pupil Development Grant is allocated.
“If this goes ahead, we need a new formula to determine who needs that extra money.”