Angela Rayner gets a mixed report for her free school meals pledge
The policy has been called a 'winner' that boosts results and reduces stigma... and 'a nice hand out for the middle classes'.
Labour’s pledge to introduce free lunches for every primary school pupil has split opinion within the party's ranks and beyond.
A government led by Jeremy Corbyn would slap VAT on private school fees to fund the move, Labour has announced.
"The government’s cuts to the school budget are making school meals worse and limiting the number of children that can be fed. This decision affects the educational attainment and health of pupils," shadow education secretary Angela Rayner was due to say today.
"By investing in our education system and providing free school meals for every primary school child, we will remove the stigma attached to free school meals, and improve health and attainment for all children."
But on the Today programme, former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw was sceptical.
Wilshaw said he had no objection to putting VAT on private school fees. But he criticised the proposal to spend money extending free school meals on the grounds that it would benefit families who did not need the help.
"I don’t see why we should subsidise rich and prosperous parents who can well afford to pay for their children. I would rather see any extra cash that is available being given to poor parents," he said.
Similarly, former Labour minister Denis MacShane took to Twitter to call the idea "a nice hand out for middle classes" – and was rebuked by Corbyn’s former campaigns chief Jon Trickett.
Yet in an usual development, the policy being pushed by the Labour leadership has been backed by normally hostile Labour MPs such as Wes Streeting.
He said on Twitter: "As someone who received free school meals, I know the value - and the stigma - better than most. Universal free school meals is a winner."
The Child Poverty Action Group is also behind the plan, with chief executive Alison Garnham declaring that "the evidence on the benefits for children of extending school meals is very strong".
She added: "It shows children’s school results are boosted, their diet improves and parents in food poverty have more to spend on nutritious breakfast and dinners for their kids. What’s more, free school meals save families much-needed money and strengthen work incentives, helping parents get better off through work.
"The minority of children currently on free school meals tell us they feel stigmatised; extending entitlement should reduce, if not eliminate, that problem. If the concern is the well-being of children in just-managing families, the case for extending entitlement is a compelling one."
Meanwhile those backing VAT on private school fees would appear to include Michael Gove. In an article for The Times, the former education argued that removing the tax advantages of private schools would boost standards in the state sector and raise vital extra funds.
"Private school fees are VAT-exempt. That tax advantage allows the wealthiest in this country, indeed the very wealthiest in the globe, to buy a prestige service that secures their children a permanent positional edge in society at an effective 20 per cent discount," he wrote.
The House of Commons Library research estimates that free school meals for all primary school children would cost between £700 million and £900 million, according to figures provided by Labour.
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