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NatCen on the Election: Free childcare vs free lunches

Posted on 24 May 2017 by Nancy Kelley, Deputy Chief Executive .
Tags: childcare, NatCen on the Election, families, free school meals, general election

Last week’s Conservative manifesto featured two headline-grabbing policies for families with young children, both based on evidence.

First, “lunch snatching”:

‘There is now good evidence that school breakfasts are at least as effective in helping children to make progress in school’

The evidence here is in two evaluations: a 2012 study by NatCen and IFS on the impact of the free school meals pilot, and a 2017 study by IFS and NCB on the impact of free breakfast clubs.

It’s absolutely right to say the effect on attainment is similar. Having a free school lunch meant that 5-7 year olds made between 4 and 8 weeks more progress, while having a free school breakfast meant that 6-7 year olds made 8 weeks more progress.

And it’s also fair to say that the costs are significantly different: breakfast clubs in the pilot cost £11.86 per pupil per year, compared to £220 per pupil per year in the free school meals pilot.*

But these aren’t the only things worth considering. 

While in theory it’s possible to target FSM, there is evidence that means-testing translates into significant numbers of children not taking up the free lunch they are entitled to. Under the old system, in some local authorities more than a quarter of the children entitled to a free school meal were never registered.

In contrast, the NatCen/IFS evaluation of the free school meals pilot demonstrated that providing free school meals to all primary children increased uptake among poorer children.  So the best way of making sure that ‘free lunches go to those children whose parents can’t afford it’ may well be by making sure all children continue to get free lunches.

Then the big childcare giveaway:

‘We know high quality childcare is important not just to working parents but even more so to a child’s development and happiness’.

The manifesto reaffirms the government’s commitment to rolling out 30 hours a week of free childcare to all working families with children aged 3-4. As with the policy change from free lunches to free breakfasts, extending free childcare is sound evidence based policy: there are any number of studies including our Study on Early Years Education and Development (SEED), EPPE and the Millenium Cohort Study that demonstrate the positive impact that high-quality childcare has on educational, behavioural and social outcomes for children.

Unlike means-tested free school meals, the enhanced childcare offer is only available to children in families where parents are in work, and have earnings above a certain threshold. The aim is to support more parents to move into work, but the policy will also function as a cash benefit for well-off families: only families where a parent earns over £100,000 are ineligible on the basis of high income.

Yet we know that high-quality early education has the greatest impact on children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, playing a key role in narrowing the educational attainment gap. Children from poorer households are already less likely to attend formal childcare, and data from the Childcare and Early Years Parents Survey shows that universal entitlement to free childcare has had a significant positive impact on uptake.

So while both policies are based on good evidence, both carry a risk that the poorest children will be left further behind.

Follow me on Twitter: @Nancy_M_K

*Important to note: costs in the breakfast club pilot were based on only 25% of children attending breakfast club as well as volunteer labour and donated food.  However, the actual cost per pupil of UIFSM has also been much higher than in the pilot: £437 per child per year (thanks @ajjolley)

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