UK Politics

Free school meals plan not 'dumb', minister insists

School meal Image copyright PA
Image caption Ministers say the idea will help childrens' concentration and attainment

Ministers have defended their plans for free school meals for infant children in England after a former adviser to the education secretary said the idea was "dumb" and a "bad gimmick".

Dominic Cummings, who used to work for Michael Gove, told the BBC that many schools would not be able to cope and implementing it would lead to chaos.

Schools minister David Laws said the policy was thought through and costed.

He dismissed Mr Cummings' claims as "complete and utter" rubbish.

From September, all Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 children in state-funded schools in England will be entitled to free school meals under the scheme announced by deputy prime minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg last autumn.

But the policy is at the centre of a growing row between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.

Mr Cummings, who worked as a special adviser to the Conservative education secretary until quitting last year, suggested that officials in the Department for Education were unanimously opposed to the policy.

Image copyright PA
Image caption TV chef Jamie Oliver raised the political profile of school meals in his Channel 4 series back in 2005

In an email exchange with BBC Radio 4's World at One programme, Mr Cummings said the Department for Education was only given an hour's notice about the policy's introduction and no policy work was done in advance.

"Officials in the Department were unanimous that it was a bad gimmick and introduced in a way that makes it hard to avoid implementation chaos," he said.

"Our opposition was because it is a dumb idea, badly executed, that shows why politicians should have less power over schools."


He said Mr Clegg had been warned that it was a bad idea and that it should not be rushed because of the need for many schools to build new kitchens at a time of other major changes.

He also suggested Lib Dem claims that £150m would need to be spent to modernise and expand school kitchens was a "junk" figure drawn up on "the back of a fag packet".

But his criticisms prompted a furious response from the Lib Dem schools minister.

Mr Laws said the education secretary did not share the views of his former special adviser, who he described as a bright but controversial" individual who was "frequently wrong".

The minister said the idea had emanated from the school food plan endorsed by Mr Gove and a "serious amount of policy work" had gone into it since 2009, including a series of pilots.

There were always "noises off" when a big policy was introduced, he added, but he insisted the schools he had spoken to were "universally enthusiastic" about the idea.

"There are going to be implementational challenges but I do believe this is a popular policy with schools and parents and I believe we will successfully implement it," he said.

He told the BBC that ministers, not special advisers, decided government policy.

"What he [Dominic Cummings] said about the backdrop to the introduction of this policy... reflects his personal views, not the views of the secretary of state."

Labour said the ex-adviser's remarks called into question "the quality of decision making" in the department and across the government as a whole.

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