During the summer holidays, about 1.3 million children were able to claim free school meal vouchers following a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford that led to a government U-turn. Earlier this month, Rashford was made an MBE for his efforts. Nevertheless, on 21 October 2020 the Government voted down an Opposition Day Debate which aimed “to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021.” In the intervening week, more than a million people have signed a parliamentary petition launched by Rashford calling for this decision by Parliament to be reversed.
Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest polling in Great Britain assessed public attitudes to the debate around free school meals. Around two thirds (66%) agree that the Government should extend free meals for poorer pupils to school holidays. Only 14% disagree, while 16% neither agree nor disagree.
Despite 322 Conservative MPs voting against a parliamentary motion which would have extended free school provision to school holidays, a majority (51%) of those who voted for the Conservatives in 2019 agree that the Government should reverse its current position. Only 27% of 2019 Conservative voters disagree. Furthermore, a clear majority of all age brackets agree that the Government should extend free school meals outside of term time. An overwhelming majority (72%) of parents and guardians of school aged children also agree.
Moreover, even after respondents were informed that the UK Government did not provide free school meals during school holidays before the coronavirus pandemic, a majority (52%) continue to hold the view that the Government should commit to funding free school meals for all school holidays after the pandemic. Less than a third (31%) think the Government should not commit.
A greater partisan dimension also emerges in response to this question. Once told that the Government did not fund free school meals prior to the pandemic, the position of 2019 Conservative voters changes, and almost half (49%) say the Government should not fund free school meals during school holidays going forward, while around a third (35%) think they should. By contrast, when given this additional information about free school meals during holidays not having been funded in the past, nearly three quarters (74%) of 2019 Labour supporters believe the Government should fund free school meals year-round going forward, whereas only 16% say they should not. A plurality (46%) of those aged 55 or above think the Government should not commit to free school meals during the holidays in the future, in contrast to majorities of younger people who think the Government should commit. Parents of school aged children are more likely (64%) to think the Government should commit to providing free school meals than those without children of school age (47%).
The Government says it provided local councils with a £64 million “hardship fund” in July which could be used to fund free school meals on a local level. When provided with this information, a plurality (42%) of the public hold the view that since the Government has provided local councils with extra money to tackle hardship in the community, it is therefore the responsibility of the local councils to fund free school meals in the holidays. Meanwhile, 37% think that while the Government has provided local councils with extra money to tackle hardship in the community, it still has a separate responsibility to fund free school meals in the holidays. Around a fifth (21%) don’t know. These variations in public opinion after being provided with additional information (such as the £64 million “hardship fund”, or the fact the Government did not fund free school meals during holidays prior to the pandemic) highlight the importance of political communications and media coverage, and how easily public opinion can be swayed through awareness of a previously unknown policy considerations.
Labour has vowed to force another Commons vote on free school meals if the Government does not change its course on the issue before the Christmas holidays. The stance of the Opposition Party on the issue is aligned to general public opinion: a clear majority (60%) think the Government should pay to feed children eligible for free school meals over the Christmas break. Only a quarter (25%) of the British public say the Government should not fund free school meals for children from low income families over the festive period.
A plurality (45%) of 2019 Conservative voters would support the Government paying for free school meals for eligible children over Christmas, while over three-quarters (76%) of 2019 Labour supporters would also favour this policy. Clear majorities of all age brackets (56-67%) would support such a move.
Senior figures in the Conservative Party have publicly admitted that the Government has “misunderstood the mood of the country” in regard to the controversy around free meals for school children. Indeed, a clear majority (54%) say the Government’s handling of the controversy surrounding free meals has been incompetent. Only around a quarter (26%) say the Government’s approach to the crisis has been competent. Public belief that the Government has behaved incompetently in this instance may be a key factor in the Government’s continually low Net Competency Rating.
Strong pluralities or majorities (48-60%) of all age groups say the Government’s handling of the controversy was incompetent, while the overwhelming majority of 2019 Labour supporters also hold this view. Although a slight plurality (45%) of 2019 Conservative voters think the Government has displayed competency on the issue, a significant minority (37%) believe it has acted incompetently.
Ultimately, a substantial majority of the British public think the Government should extend free school meal provision to poorer pupils during school holidays. The public remain in favour of this policy despite the economic cost posed to the Government by coronavirus, and despite the knowledge that free school meals were not funded by the Government during school holidays prior to the pandemic. Although the controversy may subside temporarily, it is likely to re-emerge again prior to the Christmas holidays, and the Government will have to decide whether or not it wants to go against public opinion again.