Uniforms more important than school meals?

This morning, I heard an interview with the woman who had stood to be mayor of Newham, the east London borough, in the most recent local elections (the same day as the general election). Her name is Maria Allen, she stood for the Conservative party and won 16.11% of the vote (doubled from last time, but still not that great). The winner was Labour man Robin Wales, who got 68.02%, and promised to continue the council’s policy of providing free school meals to all kids where they’re wanted, and they intend to do this despite the coming enforced budget cuts in which councils will have to reduce their spending by up to a third.

Maria Allen didn’t think much of the Labour council’s idea. She’s interested in eradicating “child poverty”, and thinks that we should help the poor kids who are being bullied in the playground for not having the correct uniform and all that, by giving uniform vouchers to parents who can’t afford it. She wanted the meals means tested, and had nothing much to say when Vanessa Feltz argued that school meals for everyone took the stigma out of being poor or that the universality — everyone tucking into the same lunch — was what many people liked about it. Also, she alleged that some parents objected to the spiciness of some of the food (it can’t be curry all week round, surely!) while Feltz claimed that parents had been brought into the schools to sample it and thought it was lovely.

Now, I was at a secondary school many years ago where a lot of kids were on free school meals (not including me), and I can’t remember there being any stigma attached to it whatsoever, and in Newham, a third of children would be entitled to them in the absence of the current scheme. Maybe it’s different for the less well-off kids in more affluent areas. I am, however, puzzled that the first thing she seems to think of when it comes to child poverty is the fact that the children’s parents can’t afford the uniforms, and that the way to deal with that is for the schools (i.e. the taxpayer) to pay the parents to buy the uniform.

Instead of, like, getting rid of the uniform.

I am not saying there shouldn’t be some idea of appropriate dress in a school, but emphasising school uniforms over making sure kids are fed during the school day sounds like a Tory riding an old Tory hobby horse. School uniforms are an old British custom, likely inherited from the old public schools (you don’t get them in most schools in the USA and Canada and much of Europe, and they do perfectly well), and you can even see this in third world countries which used to be British colonies: the schools all have uniforms, kids don’t go to school if their parents can’t afford them (even though there is, theoretically, free education) and this is seen as some great inescapable poverty trap when school uniforms are a foreign import and the solution to the problem is glaringly obvious.

You can see why the Tories didn’t make much of a mark in Newham. (Interview here, an hour in, after the news; UK only, until next Monday.)

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