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Editorial: The free school meals victory shows pressure can defeat this government

THE government’s U-turn on free school meals is good news — first and foremost for the estimated 1.3 million children who will benefit from them over the summer.

It’s a victory for footballer Marcus Rashford as well as for all those who campaigned to overturn Boris Johnson’s determination to end the school meals voucher scheme when the summer holidays begin.

Rashford’s own words — “just look at what we can do when we come together” — speak to the reality that ministers have changed their minds as a direct result of public pressure.

That was fronted by the Manchester United star of course, and he deserves full credit for using his profile on behalf of hungry children across Britain.

But the government also has an eye on the strength of resistance organised by trade unions.

Unions were instrumental in pressing it to provide support for children entitled to free school meals when lockdown was first announced.

As is clearly typical of the Johnson administration, little thought had gone into the question of feeding these children when lockdown was imposed on March 23, and it took an outcry from unions, school leaders and Labour to get the voucher scheme announced eight days later.

They have since seen off the government’s dangerous desire to fully reopen schools before the summer when ministers could offer almost no detail on how social distancing measures could be ensured.

Ministers will be acutely aware that the National Education Union (NEU) has recruited 20,000 new members and 2,000 new reps since the start of the crisis. 

They are nervous of the community organising potential this represents: conditions in schools are by their nature of concern to the children who attend them, the parents of those children and the people who live and work around them as well as the people who work in them. 

Over school reopening, education unions spoke for the fears of entire communities rather than solely of staff and won over public opinion despite a vicious smear campaign by right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, backed by a host of Labour Blairites.

This has its roots in a tradition of successful community organising by the NEU’s predecessor unions the ATL and NUT, through initiatives like the Stand Up for Education campaign or that on School Cuts that swung hundreds of thousands of votes in the 2017 election.

The NEU’s 10-point education recovery plan has shifted the focus to how learning can be put back on track without increasing the risk of a second wave of Covid-19. 

The plan included the need for free school meals to be extended over the holiday. That has now been won, and the manner of the victory — ministers were still insisting there would be no extension yesterday morning — suggests a panicked retreat by a government deeply uncertain of its ability to control events.

This should be pressed home, because, as NEU executive member Gawain Little said today, “what we have won is just a sticking plaster for the poverty and inequality that blights our country.”

Teachers have long spoken out about the impact of poverty on learning and the rise in the number of children arriving at school too hungry or ill to concentrate as a result of the “austerity” spending cuts of the last decade.

The Prime Minister insists that the extension is a one-off measure related to the extraordinary circumstances of coronavirus.

Our task is to insist that if the government can act to alleviate poverty now it can do so in the future.

The real question is why more than a million children in Britain come from families so poor that they need free school meals at all, and it is a question that can only be answered by a mass labour movement campaign for jobs, pay and social security.

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