I never quite know what to make of figures. As politicians prove every single day, you can ‘prove’ virtually anything by producing a number. But what to make of these figures, just published in the Guardian:
‘The number of children in England receiving free school meals has soared to more than 1.7 million, including more than 1 million aged between four and 11, official data shows. Figures from the annual school census show a rise from 1.44 million children, or 17.3% of all pupils, in January last year to 1.74 million, nearly 21%, in January this year.
The rules for applying for school meals are quite simple, as explained here. If you claim one of the benefits, your children may get free school meals. And what it shows, very clearly, is that there are a lot of very poor children in this country.
I don’t know if my mum applied for free schools for me when I was at school. She certainly should have because we were quite poor and my school dinner was always my main meal of the day. Tea, or dinner as some folk call tea, would be what she could scrounge at the butcher shop near where she worked, usually a piece of pig’s liver or a piece of pig’s liver. Nothing like variety, eh? Anyway, I filled my boots with school dinner, at least I did when one of the feared fourth year pupils wasn’t in charge of dividing up the spoils. Then, I would end up with the fattiest piece of fat that used to belong to an animal, the crust of any pie but as many vegetables as I could consume. After all, who wanted something healthy? Not me.
My guess is that either my mum, a Dutch woman naive in the way Britain operated, wasn’t familiar with the concept of free school meals or was too proud to claim them for her son. My guess is it was the former, but if she had known of them it would have been the latter. Suffice to say, having a school dinner kept me fed during a school day.
I’ve always said that despite being poor, I never went hungry but having thought about it, I often did. Saturdays at my grandparents saw me having a small portion of chips for dinner and a pikelet for tea. (A pikelet is like a crumpet only much smaller.) We never had fruit in the house and we never had anything that needed to be stored in a fridge because we didn’t have a fridge. So yes, having a school dinner was massively important.
The fact is that over a fifth of children are entitled to free school meals today, including more than a million aged between four and 11. A fifth. In my upper working class/lower middle class world in our little ex council house, I just don’t see what is, without doubt, poverty. I know it’s there because I spent almost 40 years working for the DWP and in this instance figures don’t lie.
The saddest aspect is that the situation is getting worse. The numbers requiring free school meals are rising, not falling. Doubtless, the effects of the COVID pandemic have made things considerably worse, but it’s not just COVID. It’s the government, too.
Boris Johnson’s catchphrase is ‘levelling up’, which means whatever you want it to mean, in Johnson’s case nothing. The effect is supposed to be that the government is going to make poorer people richer but it doesn’t say how because it isn’t going to. If it was, there would be a trade-off whereby the better off paid a little more in tax to help raise the living standards of the lower orders. But there will be no trade off. We still live in the aftermath of Thatcherism and one of its main tenets still exists today: greed is good.
If Johnson started off on a genuine path of redistribution, how far do you think he’d get? The rich and powerful who own the country and tell it what to think would be out in force, their newspapers stacked with stories about scroungers and the workshy being given ‘hand outs’ by ‘hard working people’. But Johnson won’t start down that road. It’s a slogan and he doesn’t mean it. And that’s why 21% of all pupils get free school meals. That figure will only fall if Johnson’s government makes it harder for people to claim free school meals, perhaps by restricting them to just those in absolute poverty and not merely poor.
We are always told this is the country of plenty, how we are Great Britain. We’re not great England when we have to rely on the state to stop our children starving to death.
As ever, it’s a political choice. Do we think it’s right that so many children come from families so poor the state has to feed them? Sadly, the answer at the elections of 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 was yes and judging from the opinion polls, poverty for children is still near the top of the electorate’s wish list.