By Beth Williams | News Editor
Labour and Plaid Cymru have pledged to give free school meals to every primary school pupil in Wales within the next three years.
The scheme is one of many policies to be implemented as part of a co-operation deal agreed by both political parties. The Labour party holds 30 of the 60 seats in the Senedd, meaning it is dependent on the agreement of at least one minister from another party to pass legislation. Discussing the deal, First Minister and Labour leader Mark Drakeford said: “This co-operation agreement brings the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru together to respond to some of the most pressing issues facing Wales today, such as climate change and the energy and cost-of-living crisis.” Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price commented: “Through it we plant together the seed beneath the snow of a new society, a new Wales, a new beginning.”
105,000 children between the ages of five and 15 are currently eligible for free school meals in Wales. This figure increased by 19,000 between January 2020 and January 2021 due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Wales still has the highest amount of children living in poverty and not eligible for free school meals. During this year’s school holidays, the Welsh government allotted £23 million to financing free school meals for pupils. Mark Drakeford called the new policy “ambitious”, with Adam Price hailing it as “historic”.
Others, however, have criticised the scheme. Conservative MP Rob Roberts said, “Some 35 years ago, I benefited from free school meals when my parents were in a difficult situation and in need of support. There was no stigma, no embarrassment or issue with that at all. People talk a lot about stigma. I respectfully submit that there is no stigma, other than when well-meaning people keep saying that there is”
Some of the other 45 policies outlined in the co-operation deal are to potentially move the country’s net zero target from 2050 to 2035, introduce a new law surrounding Welsh language education and the extension of free childcare to all two year olds. However, this three-year co-operation does not equate to a coalition. No Plaid Cymru members will join the government as ministers or deputy ministers.
The free school meals policy follows outrage after one secondary school instructed its cooks to deny pupils food if they were more than 1p in debt. In a letter sent out to parents, Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle in Gwynedd wrote that school meal debts had reached a total of £1800. Parents had until 19 November to clear their debts before the system was implemented on 22 November. At the time, strategic head teacher Neil Foden said that the “scale of the default means that something clearly has to be done”. The intense scrutiny has since forced the council to apologize and school officials to review this policy. However, there is no indication of a similar free school meals scheme for secondary school pupils.