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Social Justice

'You need food to survive': London borough becomes first in country to give free school meals to all

Children in Tower Hamlets are the most likely to grow up in poverty, but they're the first in Britain to get universal free school meals in secondary school

Image: Tower Hamlets Council

On one of the hottest days of the year, 1,200 tweens and teens are sitting down to roast chicken with roast potatoes, veggies and gravy, plus a starter and fruit. In a cooler fridge, rows of sandwiches and wraps are on offer, but there are no price stickers here.

It doesn’t matter whether their parents make a million pounds or are claiming unemployment benefits, every child at Swanlea secondary school in Tower Hamlets, East London, will have a full stomach for afternoon lessons, completely free. 

“You don’t want to be doing a maths equation while your stomach’s rumbling,” says Saarah Hussain, 15, a year 11 pupil. “You need food to survive.”

The school is located in densely populated Whitechapel, within walking distance of the East London Mosque and the Royal London Hospital – an area in which almost one in two kids are growing up in poverty. The London borough of Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of child poverty in the country. And this is despite it also being home to the country’s most prosperous financial district, Canary Wharf, where some of the world’s biggest banks have their HQs in shining skyscrapers. 

In this part of Britain with the widest gap between rich and poor, it was clear that something drastic was needed to level the playing field, even if by just an inch, for the next generation. 

He may be a controversial figure in local politics, but it can’t be denied that the Mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman is a trailblazer for making his council the first to bring in free school meals for every child in both primary and secondary education. 

“We see the child poverty, we see the cost of living crisis, we see the need,” he told The Big Issue on a visit to Swanlea school, his stomach full from a roast chicken dinner. 

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Rahman was kicked out of office in 2015 after an electoral commission investigation found him guilty of voter fraud.

Staging a comeback after his five-year ban from politics, during which Labour politician Mayor John Biggs ran the borough, Rahman urged people to “judge me on what we will do for you”. He said: “I want to rebuild Tower Hamlets, I want to invest in our future, and give our people a better future than we had in the last seven years.”

Mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman and deputy Mayor Maium Talukdar sample the free school meals available at Swanlea Secondary School. Image: Tower Hamlets Council

Rahman is also the only council leader in the country to have brought back education maintenance allowance (EMA), which provides 16- to 19-year-old students from low-income families with a £400 payment to help with the costs that come with staying in further education. 

So how is he affording all of this? Rahman says his administration has “cut nothing”. In a key campaign commitment from the start, £5.7m was earmarked in the council’s 2023/24 budget to extend universal free school meals funding from all primary to include all secondary school pupils.

This September, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan brought in free school meals for every primary school child in every London borough. It’s a £130 million scheme, with £1.5 million allocated to Tower Hamlets. But, of course, the council had already budgeted for this, and says money will be fed into other measures to reduce the impact of the cost of living crisis on residents. 

Across England, the poorest secondary school children are already entitled to a free school meal, but the income threshold is low. If a family earns more than £7,400 a year between them after tax and not including universal credit, their children will not be eligible for free school meals. This threshold was introduced in 2018 and it has not changed since, despite soaring inflation rates.  

A total of 800,000 children in England are living in poverty but are not eligible for free school meals, according to research from the Food Foundation

“We are particularly pleased for a specific group of our youngsters and their families, and they’re a group we call ‘the working poor’,” says Brenda Landers, the headteacher of Swanlea. “They are the group that traditionally are not eligible for free school meals, but massively struggle to provide for their child getting a school meal.”

“50% of our youngsters would get free school meals anyway, which is very, very high. But it’s the next couple of layers up who are still poor, but not poor enough [who will benefit the most]”, she explains. 

In the past, children whose parents were in the ‘working poor’ had to pay around £1.80 per meal, provided below cost price. While this is relatively cheap, for a parent with three school-aged children, this adds up to £108 a month. While inflation is finally coming down, food prices remain up by 15% on the previous year. And it’s not just parents who are feeling the pinch of the cost of living crisis. 

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Birmingham Council is the latest local authority to declare bankruptcy, following Croydon’s third bankruptcy announcement in two years in 2022. At least five other councils have been forced into bankruptcy in the last five years, giving them little to no spare cash to experiment with. 

Could this bold move be possible anywhere else? The National Education Union (NEU) campaigns for free school meals for all children, but acknowledges that not all local councils have the funds. “[W]e are urging Government to step up and follow the example of councils like Tower Hamlets”, Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the NEU told The Big Issue.

“Tower Hamlet Council’s expansion of the Free School Meals scheme is a fantastic step forward and one that will support and empower thousands of families… National government need to rethink what we are prioritising as a nation.”

To other councils, Mayor Rahman said: “Think hard and fast, look at your priorities.”

“I know all of us have to tighten our belts, but irrespective of this, if you can explore opportunities for how we can support our youngsters, and if you do find the financial resources, you do have the willingness, do support them.”

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