Keir Starmer is facing mounting calls to extend free school meals to every child in England if Labour makes it into power, to help families struggling with the cost of living and close the educational attainment gap.
The National Education Union has also called for long-term funding for the holiday activities and food programme fronted by the England footballer Marcus Rashford, offering free places to children on universal credit (UC), in its policy submission to the party.
The Labour leader has come under pressure to adopt the free meals policy nationally since the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced free school meals for all primary pupils across the capital for a year from September.
A number of local Labour constituency parties are understood to have made similar calls. The Scottish and Welsh governments are also introducing universal free school meals, which are currently only available for all children up to year 2 in England.
There is understood to be a meeting of Labour’s policy commission that deals with public services on Tuesday, but the Guardian has been told the paper up for discussion makes no commitments on free school meals or other NEU demands.
There are 3.9 million children in the UK – or eight pupils in every class of 30 – growing up in poverty, and teachers see the impact it has on pupils’ educational experience and outcomes in school first hand.
An NEU source said: “While it is right that the government is coming under pressure to extend free school meals, we are also very clearly asking Labour to adopt it as part of the party’s manifesto process.
“As Labour develops its policy agenda over the summer we want to see this as a plank of its programme for education, alongside other priorities of importance to educators such as workload, assessment, pay, accountability and sustainable funding for schools.”
In its written submission to Labour’s national policy consultation, seen by the Guardian, the NEU calls for a clear child-poverty strategy at the next election, reforming UC by reducing punitive deductions, scrapping the benefits cap and ending the two-child limit.
The union wants a Labour government to provide free household internet access for children and young people in households on UC, after the pandemic laid bare the digital divide between the wealthiest families and those struggling to get by.
The NEU document raises concerns over workload, with teachers embroiled in a dispute with the government over pay and conditions. It urges Labour to immediately abolish Ofsted’s grading system and announce a review of school inspection if elected.
Intense workload and poor pay has aggravated problems of recruitment and retention, highlighted this week when Rishi Sunak was forced to admit his plans for pupils to learn maths until 18 would need time for more teachers to be recruited.
The government has missed its secondary school teacher recruitment target by 41% this year, with one in four leaving the profession within three years of qualification, and a third within five.
The NEU also highlights the issue of pay, after its members decisively rejected the government’s offer of a £1,000 one-off payment and a 4.3% rise for most teachers earlier this month, urging Labour to correct the real-terms decline.
It also calls for a review of the curriculum and assessment in English primary and secondary schools as a priority, amid concerns they are struggling to provide the mental health support needed by pupils, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.
“The emphasis placed on preparing pupils for high-stakes tests and exams has narrowed what is taught and learned,” it says. “Statutory assessment and public examinations reinforce the government’s antiquated curriculum preferences.”
The NEU submission calls for a Labour pledge to scrap the ambition to move all schools into multi-academy trusts, and allow local authorities to open new schools, amid concerns that existing ones admit relatively few disadvantaged children. Councils should also be given powers over admissions and exclusions, it says.
Labour’s national policy forum meets in July to thrash out plans for government, before announcing key policies at party conference this autumn and in next year’s general election manifesto.TIOB News