Conservative school breakfast pledge may cost five times manifesto costing, says expert

Written by Nicholas Mairs and Tom Freeman on 25 May 2017 in News

Conservatives admit costing in manifesto based on low uptake of scheme

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The Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to provide free breakfast for every primary school pupil in England would cost five times what the party has stated, academics have warned.

The party plans to axe universal free school meals and replace them with a cheaper scheme to provide breakfasts at school.

But experts analysing the plans have re-costed them at between £200m and £400m – well above the £60m stated in the Tory manifesto.

A Conservative Party spokesman said the original costing of the offer was based on a 25% take-up rate of a charitable programme, at a cost of 25 pence per meal, but admitted the cost could rise.


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However figures compiled by the Education Datalab thinktank showed that even if just one in five of the 3.6 million primary school pupils ate just 25p worth of food, the costs for the daily breakfast clubs would cost £100m a year more than the party’s estimate.

Speaking at an Education Media Centre press briefing, Dr Rebecca Allen said: "They say it's going to cost £60m but we think it's going to cost something over £200m to £400m.

"It's a problem because they wanted to scrap universal free school meals for infants and take that and put it back into the general slug of the education budget.

"We think that they can't manage to do that if they are going to deliver free school breakfasts."

The manifesto vow was to replace giving free lunches to all state school pupils up until the age of seven, with the estimated £650m savings to be recycled in to England’s stretched education budget.

However, Dr Allen said the move to put the savings back into the overall budget would be incompatible with providing free breakfasts.

The research team also found that the estimated 25% take-up rate failed to account for a potential rise in parents using the clubs as a childcare substitute.

“If breakfast clubs in schools act as a proper childcare substitute, we would presume that in the long run parents would switch from their existing provision of childminders and commercial providers into free breakfast clubs – and therefore we think take-up would be substantially in excess of 20%,” Dr Allen added.

Furthermore, the study queried the validity of the Conservatives' costings, which they say were based on a scheme known as Magic Breakfast, which relied on volunteers and thus did not account for staffing costs.

A party spokesperson said: “These clubs didn’t have 100% uptake – only around 25% of children attended, as in a Department for Education trial of breakfast clubs – but they still had positive effects for all the children in the school."

“If many more children now start eating breakfast in school then the costs will go up but the evidence of two large trials is that they won’t.”

On the issue of staff numbers, Dr Allen added: “We simply don’t have excess support staff or teaching assistants floating around in schools in the way we had three years ago.

“So regardless of which way you try to think of doing it, you can’t end up with a cost of £60m and you could end up with a really, really big number – and by that I mean £200m to £400m.”

In Scotland the Scottish Government plans to retain free school lunches in the first three years of primary school.

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