Two weeks ago I had lunch in my local maintained school. The food was very good, excellent even, when you consider that the kitchen prepared hundreds of covers every day, including hot food, salads, sandwiches, wraps and vegetarian options. The queues were a bit long perhaps, the children a little unruly and desperate to quickly eat and get out to enjoy the sunshine and play. But it was heartening to sit amongst a roomful of schoolchildren noisily and energetically sharing food and conversation. Natural and social behaviour, with no risk of being flung into detention or threatened with exclusion for touching or communicating with a fellow human being.
The costs of running the kitchen are high and the school’s café is struggling to break even, despite the high quality and nutritional value of the food. I was reminded that maintained schools are bound by regulations – so junk food and chips on the menu every day are not permitted. A good thing, considering that obesity is a health problem and a drain on the NHS. A good thing also because for many children on Free School Meals, school lunch may well be the most balanced plate of food they will get that day. All in all, it makes sense that legislation enforces standards and promotes healthy eating in schools.
Except the present government is quite happy to throw the rules out of the window,so what applies to maintained schools is not applicable to Free Schools and Academies. In last Sunday’s Observer
, Jamie Oliver expressed his dismay over Academies’ exemption from adhering to nutrition guidelines for school meals. Unregulated, they can ignore the health department’s warnings about child obesity and are perfectly within their rights to serve up crap food on a daily basis to the children in their care and Michael Gove is complicit in this. But then his free market ideology would applaud vending machine companies from making a profit and the Academy itself earning £14,000 from encouraging their children to eat crisps, fizzy drinks and sweets. He claims that he trusts Academies to act in the best interests of pupils but we should be trusting government ministers to dissuade children from eating unhealthy food, not rushing through legislation that removes safeguards.
It won’t be children from middle class families who will suffer most from junk school meals but those from poor families. The Jamie Oliver outburst is more than a story of a celebrity chef’s attack on Gove for threatening to undo the good work he started 10 years ago, because it is another twist on what is a depressingly consistent consequence of almost all of the policies of this Tory-dominated coalition. Policies rooted in free market ideology, designed to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots, to reward the already privileged and punish the neediest whilst tipping more and more families over the edge into poverty.
The wholesale dismantling and selling off of public services to the private sector, the amputation of the National Health Service, the severing of social services, the cuts to pensions and tax benefits, an economic policy resulting in a double dip recession and zero growth, record unemployment (over 1m amongst 16-24 year olds, and counting) all hit the neediest the hardest. Massive tuition fees means that higher education is becoming out of reach for many less well off young people, satellite grammar schools will cater for more children whose parents have an income disposed towards private tuition, academies and free schools will play fast and loose with an admissions code they can vary in cahoots with the Secretary of State for Education to favour whomever they wish to admit, vulnerable but improving schools squeezed of investment and resources are brutally closed down despite facing serious challenges all because Gove whimsically raises floor targets in order to “prove” more failure, to be handed over to Academy chains, some of whose founders coincidentally donated millions to the Tory coffers.
Academies and Free Schools were promoted on the ticket that they would improve standards of education and raise attainment for the most deprived, but analysis of the DfE’s own data do not show that Academies outperform maintained schools, as Henry Stewart has demonstrated on this site. Worse, according to the Guardian
, figures lodged in the House of Commons library by the Department for Education reveal that 18 of the 24 free schools that opened last autumn have taken a lower proportion of children eligible for free school meals than is average for schools with pupils of the same age group across their local authority.
It’s been a bad few months for Michael Gove. His hastily implemented school reforms have now taken root and pushed up more unattractive and PR-unfriendly weeds – The Guardian reported recently on a retreat on setting up Free Schools; a parent in Haringey is threatening a judicial review over Gove’s decision to remove the board of governors; Gove is currently forced to challenge a ruling by the information commissioner that he used a private email account for departmental business; and The Guardian
again revealed that one of his favourite Academies – Durand – paid £152,812 to Political Lobbying and Media Relations Ltd (PLMR) – a London-based PR firm that boasts of its connections to politicians of all parties.
All these stories are consistent with what critics have been warning about for 18 months – lack of transparency, cronyism, the withdrawing of local accountability, centralised and authoritarian control, the threat of a decrease in the quality of education at the same time as an unprecedented increase in the profits of companies that now feed off schools.
What is interesting is that until about 6 months ago, the mainstream press, with the possible exception of one or two papers, was not critical or even particularly curious about countering the sustained spin from the government about the superiority (actual or just presumed) of Academies and Free Schools. Neither did they shine too bright a light on the failures of these same reforms in countries like Sweden and the United States. It was on the internet where the doubts, warning and criticisms flowed freely and with Cassandra-like precision. And like Cassandra, those who warned were routinely dismissed and even abused as scaremongers, idiots, Trots, cherry-pickers, enemies of promise. Their sin was to lift the lid on a hugely expensive experiment that had been implemented without transparency, proper consultation or agreement; been proven to be unsuccessful in other countries and which opened the doors wide open for profit-making companies to swell their coffers.
Alarmingly for Gove and his supporters in and out of government, as the Academy/Free School programme kicks in, the Cassandras are being proved right and the DfE are increasingly unable to stem the tide of criticism. The downsides of coalition Academies and Free Schools are now out in the open and the problems they cause are now absolutely attributable to the policy and the schools themselves and not to the scaremongers and lefties who prophecised them 18 months ago.
According to a new analysis by The Children’s Society
, more than 350,000 children will lose their free school meals under the government's radical plans to reform welfare entitlement next year. It’s ghastly to ponder what is worse – no Free School Meal or Free School Turkey Twizzler.