The debate over feeding kids when their parents refuse to

October 21, 2017

There have been a couple of school shamings – one in summer 2016 about a secondary school and another in the last few weeks about a primary school – about school policies which involve feeding kids when their parents refuse to but in such a way as might deter parents from relying on this. The secondary school took students whose parents refused to pay out of lunch and fed them a cold meal in isolation. The primary school (which apparently had never actually used this sanction) gave students bread and fruit but warned in a letter to parents that this might be embarrassing for the student.

In both cases, much of the shaming imagined that the parent was unable to pay, and the school had ignored this, rather than the parents had simply refused to comply. Many critics seemed unaware that FSM existed, that schools make a real effort to help families claim them or that schools help in cases where parents don’t qualify for FSM but have other problems. Of course, a school cannot talk openly about individual cases, and if students are being fed by the school or out of a teacher’s pocket, this is unlikely to be declared openly in case it encourages parents to refuse to pay, so there was plenty of room to imagine the schools as indifferent to the issues in individual cases. There were often quite imaginative fantasies about how the schools were deliberately starving the poor. I will ignore this stuff and assume, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that these schools acted humanely, offered help where it was needed, and the policies were only ever to be applied where parents refused to co-operate with the school.

This actually leaves us with 3 main complaints and I will address these in turn.

  1. Children are being “punished” for their parents’ actions. There is some irony in that plenty of those who applied the word “punish” to this situation would probably quibble over applying it in cases of classroom discipline, where words like “sanction” or “consequence” are often preferred. But even if we consider the schools’ policies to involve a sanction or consequence rather than a punishment, this is the strongest complaint. The immediate problem with using this as a complaint is the extent to which schools allow the actions of parents to have consequences for their children already. Children are expected to turn up to school on time, in uniform and fully equipped. Schools do not have policies that seek to rule on the extent to which this is a child’s responsibility and to what extent it is a parent’s responsibility. They simply have a policy of applying sanctions (although, we can assume they make exceptions for exceptional cases). Perhaps there is a case for ending this in principle, for having rules that always assume parents are feckless and that expectations should not be set for children if their parents could be the ones undermining those expectations. But such a reform would be an enormous shift in responsibility from families to schools. This doesn’t make it wrong, but those who advocate such a change, need to admit outright they want a massive reform of almost every school, not pick individual schools to attack, or single out schools that have rules about lunch money and ignore those with rules about uniform or maths equipment. A similar kind of hypocrisy happens with regard to school uniform; people whose actual agenda is to abolish school uniforms know they cannot win that argument and instead shame schools that actually enforce their uniform policy. People who shame individual schools for ignoring a principle that almost every school ignores should, in my view, be opposed. This is not because they are necessarily wrong on the substantive point of principle – that should still be debated – but we should object to the bullying method they are using to advance this agenda.
  2. The policy is harmful. It takes about 2 seconds for the words “child abuse” to appear on Twitter once a school shaming has begun. In this case the assumption was that the schools being shamed were doing something that would be more unpleasant for children than what other schools do. This showed a remarkable ignorance about what happens in schools. In most secondary schools there is usually no formal way to check kids are being fed. That’s not to say teachers don’t look out for neglect, or that a child that was obviously hungry would not be a concern, but lunchtimes are usually not structured in a way that monitors that every child has eaten. In the average secondary school, if a parent does not hand over dinner money, it is assumed that a child has a pack lunch, and, if they don’t, they would simply go hungry. In primary schools, it is easier to monitor if a child is not eating, but even then the action taken to feed them may not be part of a formal policy. The schools being shamed over this policy are unusual in that they have an explicit and open policy of making sure every child is fed. The primary school says they never had to apply their policy of denying a student a school meal, implying that what actually happened in practice, was the same as usually happens in primary schools and the policy was there to deter intentional non-payers and had worked. The secondary school was feeding kids who would go hungry in most other schools. Neither school appears to have caused harm.
  3. The sanction was disproportionate. This to me was the oddest claim. People talk as if being given a free meal was torture and eating apart from other students was false imprisonment. The flip side of this is the assumption that failing to pay your bills is a minor misdemeanour. I’d like to challenge this. Social time at school is not actually a human right. Being deprived of it is an irritation, not an atrocity, and children are deprived of it or choose to forego it, on a fairly regular basis. A child might be embarrassed to have a different lunch, but it is not worse than any of the many embarrassments that childhood is full of and we expect children to cope with. On the other hand, the expectation that one can simply ignore one’s debts is absolutely toxic. People wreck their own lives by failing to pay their bills. Businesses go under due to bad debtors  and people failing to pay up. It is a form of promise breaking. Somebody who runs out of a restaurant without paying is seen as a thief, not a victim. The attitude that treats failing to pay bills as a trivial matter, is one that sees working class parents as perpetual victims, unable ever to fulfil their parental obligations and schools as having endless resources to subsidise the undeserving. The attitude that sees denial or disruption of social time, or having a different lunch, as a huge sanction, is one that sees schools as egalitarian babysitters, more concerned with the minutiae of kids’ social lives rather than their learning.

Whether you agree with these arguments or not, and please note I have not advocated all schools introducing these policies, I think the above at least makes their position a reasonable one for some schools to hold. I think the school shamings over this issue were the acts of cowards. They came from people who find it easy to humiliate and abuse teachers. It was also made worse by those wait until teachers are under this kind of attack, and then start drawing attention to it, while claiming to be only “asking questions” or “trying to debate”. It is not the way to have a debate.

Two footnotes.

  1. This week I saw a journalist from Schools Week, discussing on Twitter, a practice in one school that made me very uncomfortable: giving kids badges marked “more able”. I suppose as somebody who writes a regular blog review for Schools Week, I am biased, but I was really impressed by the decision to raise the issue without (so far) naming and shaming the school. I think this, rather than trying to get schools demonised in the Daily Mail, is responsible journalism. It is the issue that matters, not the name of the school.
  2. I used the word “undeserving” above. I am well aware of just how controversial that word is in middle class political discourse. I am quite happy to debate my use of the word; I did give it a lot of thought. Please don’t bother just being outraged that I used the word.


  1. I can’t help but wonder what role members of the Local Schools Network have played in these ‘shamings’. Having been the target of their attentions when I was trying to start a free school, I know that they’ll say anything if it suits their agenda, and ad hominem is their main stock in trade.

    • Don’t recall them playing a major role. They haven’t had much impact for quite a few years now.

      • It always amused me that Francis Gilbert (now an education lecturer ?) seems to have completely (and conveniently) forgotten the two books he wrote on what working as a teacher was like (and a further book called, I think “Yob Culture”).

  2. I used to work in a PRU and there were plenty of kids to be fed; not one of the parents who claimed to be “unable” to afford breakfast was without a state of the art phone and what looked like several ounces of gold in each ear, finger etc, so your use of undeserving is not undeserved.

    • Yep. I was about to post “anyone willing to bet those who can’t afford school meals have iPhones”. There seems to be an extraordinary correlation between people claiming desperate poverty and those who have the latest iPhones…..
      I think at our school, to carry out the sort of sanction described would be the end of a long process where the parent had consistently refused to pay.

  3. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. […] little enthusiasm to debate those policies without a named school in the firing line. When I wrote this post about a controversial policy I got very few hits and very few responses. The year before, a school […]

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