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Free school meals at top of list for Department for Education cuts

The free school meals scheme in England has just marked its first anniversary.

Since September last year, every child in England in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 has qualified for a cooked school lunch.

The £600 million cost is paid by the government.

Yet it's a policy from the previous government - the Coaltion.

Since September last year, every child in England in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 has qualified for a cooked school lunch. Credit: ITV News

In fact, the former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg demanded it in return for allowing the Conservatives to press ahead with their marriage tax allowance.

And so, at a time of sharp spending reductions - the free school meals are, I understand, at the very top of the list for cuts at the Department for Education.

Most schools in England have been serving the universal free meals since September 2014 but many have only just started the scheme - having spent the last 12 months installing new kitchens so they could take part.

We visited a kitchen in Chippenham in Wiltshire.

At Redland Primary, they told us that the kitchen cost £200,000.

The kitchen pod at Redland Primary. Credit: ITV News

It's called a kitchen pod and similar pods were installed at many other schools which didn't have the facilities.

At Redland, their pod is so new, it has only served 40 sessions of hot lunches.

And now they wait to see if George Osborne will axe the scheme in his Spending Review in November.

The headteacher, Hilary Lambert, told us staff were 'devastated' by the threat to axe the scheme.

But, you might ask, didn't the government promise to ring fence the schools' budget?

Yes, but the free school meals are paid from a different budget: a £14 billion budget at the Department for Education which is not ring fenced.

The budget also has to meet the costs of Further Education, child protection and adult services.

And when the Chancellor has demanded every department should plan for at least 25% cuts (as well as a much more unpalatable 40% model), experts believe the Education Secretary can't make her sums add up unless she cuts free school meals.

It also means the state is subsiding the meals of both those parents who can afford to pay as well as those parents who can't.

Nick Clegg is naturally appalled.

He told ITV News it would adversely affect children's diets as well as their educational attainment.

Other budgets or promised tax cuts could be raided instead, he said.

Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of Leon Restaurants who helped set up free school meals, told ITV News it would be a "disaster" if the scheme was scrapped.

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A petition to keep the free school meals is quickly gaining support. It's already passed the 10,000 signatories which compels the government to respond https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/107913

We won't know until November whether George Osborne will keep this scheme on or off his menu of cuts.

But campaigners are already warning him that it could be as unpopular as the decision taken by one Margaret Thatcher in 1971, when as Education a Secretary, she cancelled free school milk. A decision which earned her the nickname Margaret Thatcher Milk Snatcher.

Many have previously warned this round of cuts would be much more painful than those which came before - and this is exactly what they meant.

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