Free school meals to be rolled out to all Welsh primary school pupils from September

Free schools meals will be offered to every primary school pupil in Wales from the new school year in September Credit: PA

Free schools meals will be offered to every primary school pupil in Wales, with the roll out starting September.

The policy has been confirmed by the First Minister and the leader of Plaid Cymru in their first joint press conference since signing a co-operation agreement in December 2021.

Mark Drakeford and Adam Price announced that £25m would be invested into improving school kitchens and dining facilities so that their plan to offer free school meals to all primary school pupils can begin being rolled out from September. 

Free school meals will be offered to the very youngest pupils from the start of the next school term and the scheme will be phased in over the next three years.

The two leaders said that day-to-day funding of up to £200m has also been earmarked for local authorities who will have to deliver the pledge over the next three years. 

Announcing the investment, Mark Drakeford said: “This cost-of-living crisis is being felt by families all over Wales – extending free school meals is one of a number of measures we are taking to support families through this difficult time.”

Adam Price said: “Removing the stigma associated with having a free lunch will mean that children receive a healthy meal at a formative stage in their development - hungry children cannot learn or achieve their true potential. Together, we’re delivering for Wales and making a difference.”

However, their opponents have criticised the plan for “giving free school meals to the children of millionaires.”

The policy has been criticised by Welsh Conservatives because it will be universally available and not targeted at the most vulnerable families. 

Shadow Education Minister Laura Anne Jones said: “At a time when there is a cost-of-living crisis, it is totally wrong for Labour and their nationalist partners to collude to give free school meals to the children of millionaires when it has never been more essential to target support at those who need it most.

“Labour and Plaid’s desire to chase headlines has also blinded them to the implications this would have for those from deprived backgrounds as it distorts how the Pupil Development Grant is allocated. If this goes ahead, we need a new formula to determine who needs that extra money.

“It is abundantly clear that Labour and Plaid are totally out of touch, have no interest in addressing the underlying reasons that lead to people needing free school meals, and do not have the interest of the poorest in society at heart.”

‘Universal in practice and appeal’

Mark Drakeford and Adam Price have defended the universality of the policy

I asked both leaders if the fact that it will benefit well-off families as well as those in need was a concern to them as committed socialists.

Adam Price told me that “it is a socialist policy because as with the NHS, which is not means-tested [it is] provided free for all.

“Because, only that universal provision with certain things which are fundamental they create the base for a decent society. It is absolutely essential that they are provided on a universal basis.”

“And when we look around the world, for example, many of those Scandinavian countries where socialism and social democracy are at the heart of that politics; when we speak to the Finns, for example, they would say that the universal provision of free school meals has been an absolutely essential bedrock element within their ability to provide educational excellence for everyone in the society by removing the threshold beyond which there's always the risk that those those children are in need, will not be covered. 

“And that's why we're moving in now to provision a free school meals for primary school.”

The First Minister told me “universal services where we can provide them provide the glue that binds together a complex modern society.

Manchester United footballer and poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford has previously praised the Welsh Government's free school meal policies Credit: PA

“It means that everybody has an interest in making that service the best it can be, the well-resourced and the well-informed and the articulate as well as those who struggle to get their voices heard. 

“That's why, from my perspective, a universal service of this sort helps to strengthen those social bonds, a demonstration of the fact that in Wales, the fate of any one of us is bound up in the fate of us all. And for me, that is the essence of a socialist message.”

Both leaders also rejected my suggestion that their cooperation agreement was confusing to voters. 

Mark Drakeford told me that “I think voters are a bit more sophisticated than that. 

“I think they'd like to see political parties working together where we have common ground and they understand that there will be other issues on which we continue to have different views.”

Adam Price said: “Co-operative politics is the norm in most the parts of Europe and it's only I think, the UK, which has been brought up with a sort of Westminster sterile adversarialism that somehow sees that as as odd.

“The people that I've spoken to have seen it is refreshing that yes, we can have honest and respectful disagreement in some areas as we do, but that doesn't mean that we can't actually work together on those really important things, the big things that we've been talking about today, where there is common ground.”