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Robert Halfon MP: How a cross-party campaign for free school meals won the backing of Michael Gove and Nick Clegg

Robert Halfon is a member of the 1922 Committee's Executive and MP for Harlow. Follow Robert on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-09-17 at 21.00.13Some people look at this Government’s education reforms and see them in terms of process. However, as Michael Gove has set out on these pages recently, Academies and Free Schools are more about improving standards than structural re-organisation. If one side of the policy is about standards, the other is getting students through the door in the first place.  Recognising that reforming welfare can take a generation - but that a good education can provide a way-up for disadvantaged children and their families.

Education is everything. Quality education can quickly change people’s life chances. As long as we get pupils through the doors, we can change their lives by increasing their aspirations and providing them with the skills they need. Traditionally, eligibility for free school meals has been an indicator of poverty, with these pupils being outperformed by their peers. This year, the gap in attainment closed slightly, and the number of pupils getting five good GCSEs continues to improve. Last year, 36 per cent of pupils got five GCSEs grades A*-C, compared to 59 per cent of all pupils, and just 24 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals in 2008.

To continue to close the gap between those who receive free school meals and those who do not, we must make sure that we do everything we can to get young people through the school gates. Currently, pupils who attend a Further Education college cannot get free school meals, even if they are eligible. This is wrong, and I believe it harms young people’s life chances. Research by the Association of Colleges found that 79 per cent of colleges felt the extension of free school meals would encourage young people to stay in education. Furthermore, it discriminates against those in vocational education, despite three times as many students eligible for free school meals attending colleges, where most vocational courses take place, rather than school sixth-forms.

This is socially unjust. Everyone should get the same chances to stay on at school, regardless of the institution where they study. This is why I have been running a cross-party campaign for over a year with Nic Dakin MP to secure a change in the law so that all young people eligible for free school meals would receive them. We have successfully secured a Backbench Business debate on this topic for October 10, supported by 75 other MPs.

For this reason, yesterday’s announcement that from September 2014, all young people eligible for free school meals will receive them - even if they study at Further Education colleges - is welcome. It shows that the Government is listening to Parliament.  It is an important step in the fight to achieve parity of attainment between all school pupils, regardless of their background.

Of course, it is not simply enough for children to turn up to school - once they are there, they need quality education, and the Government is making progress here too. In order to close the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, it introduced the Pupil
Premium in 2011. This is a £1.8 billion fund that follows disadvantaged pupils through their school life to close the gap. It is worth £900 per child, and schools can spend it in whatever way they feel will benefit that pupil the most, from hiring extra staff to help those children who are struggling to buying extra IT equipment.

Ministers are also making sure that all pupils have the skills they need to get on in life. The Catch-up Premium is worth an extra £500 for child who fails to reach the expected level at the end of Primary School, and it is for schools to decide how best it should be spent. But the Government is not just throwing money at the problem: it is making structural changes to ensure that pupils have the skills they need. It is changing how maths and English are taught, to ensure that all pupils can read and write before they leave school, and have created the E-bacc, which aims to ensure all young people study the subjects that will help them get a job.

This programme is also not just about academia. The Government has reformed vocational education, investing £1.5 billion this financial year. Due to this, the take up of apprenticeships has increased enormously. Since 2010, the number of apprenticeships in my constituency alone has increased by 78 per cent. This has a positive impact on social mobility as 90 per cent of apprentices go on to get permanent jobs.

The steps that this Government has taken are motivated by a desire for all children to be able to perform to the best of their ability regardless of where they come from, but we must not overlook the positive economic impact of a good education. In 2012, youth unemployment cost the Treasure £5 billion, more than the total budget for 16-19 year olds in England, and according to a study by Aveco and the University of Bristol, the net present value of the cost
to the Treasury just a decade ahead is approximately £28 billion. So it is essential that in tough economic times, we take action to provide better education quickly.

However, we must not take our eyes off the main priority of these reforms - achieving social justice. Education is our best defence against poverty. If we give young people the right
opportunities, skills and training by getting them into school, we give them stability and the skills they need to support themselves and their families for life. This is why yesterday’s announcement regarding free school meals is so important. It does not matter that Nick Clegg announced it. The policy on free school meals would not have happened without Michael Gove.  It is up to all of, as Conservatives, to own this policy and shout about it from the rooftops. It is this Conservative-led coalition that led the way with the pupil premium and free school meals for the most disadvantaged in our society.


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