In Depth

Labour's free school meals: Something to chew on or just 'silly'?

Jeremy Corbyn's new policy garners plenty of attention, but not everyone is convinced

A Labour government would fund free school meals for all primary school pupils by charging VAT on private school fees, Jeremy Corbyn announced yesterday.

The policy is Labour's first real water-cooler moment in years, writes The Guardian's Gaby Hinsliff.

She says shadow education secretary Angela Rayner "has done exactly what oppositions should do: hitting on ideas big and bold enough to make voters sit up and notice".

But, she warns, before introducing such a scheme there needs to be evidence that free school meals is the best way to make sure no child goes hungry, rather than breakfast clubs or benefits.

Jane Merrick, writing in The Independent, agrees the announcement shows the opposition is getting on to an election footing ahead of a possible pre-2020 poll.

"Labour are already in manifesto-building mode", she says, and the school meals idea might be sufficiently attractive to persuade some wavering Labour voters not to flee to Ukip.

But former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw questioned why wealthier parents who can afford to pay should be included, telling BBC Radio's Today programme: "I don't see why we should subsidise rich and prosperous parents."

At least the sums add up, according to Reality Check, the BBC News fact-checking service. 

Its calculations contradict a claim by the Independent Schools Council that the plan would cost taxpayers more than it would save, concluding: "Unless increased fees led to large numbers of children switching from private to state schools, there's no reason Labour's plans would not work financially."

But the Daily Telegraph dismisses the policy, arguing it would price the middle classes further out of the independent sector.

"Unable to afford a private school, their children will fill up the local state school, where they will qualify for a free meal as if they were paupers," it says.

The sentiment is shared by The Times, which calls the scheme "vacuous, socially divisive and economically silly".

The paper claims that if the policy ended up pushing 100,000 current public school pupils into the state sector, it would cost taxpayers about £550m.

"Private schools save taxpayers money," it says. "The parents who pay the fees should not be penalised for doing so."

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