Monday, 22 May 2017
So the Conservative Party wants to remove free school meals from children in the Reception Year and Years 1 & 2. This move to cut costs will still protect those families on extremely low incomes but it does nothing to protect families like mine.
If you are a Conservative voter looking in on my family life, you might see the wife who stays at home, while my husband goes out to work. In your eyes we are the ‘middle class freeloaders’ who live in a mortgaged home and are happy to take Child Tax Credit and Free School meals. But what you won’t see is the wife who can’t go out to work because she is a full-time Carer to two disabled children. You won’t see my husband as he really is. Exhausted and over worked, trying to keep a roof over our heads, where once there were two incomes and now only one.We barely get by each month. Can you imagine for a moment having half your income and your ability to work taken away from you overnight? But this is what happened to us in 2010 when our twins were born. I had to make the choice between running my own business and caring 24 hours a day for my daughter who has required intravenous feeding and gastrostomy feeding from birth. Of course there was no real choice; I had to lose my business and in the process make three members of staff unemployed. This is the social impact of a childbirth that went wrong. The ripples of its effect stretched beyond just my husband and myself.
We have spent the last few years treading water it seems, and at times feeling like we are drowning. I have tried to get some ground beneath my feet. I survive on Carers Allowance, but it’s not really surviving and in the last year I have tried to work self-employed as writer and photographer but progress is slow.
So what does this all have to do with free school meals? It has everything to do with them. Free school meals are not just about the free food itself. For disabled children it relieves the financial burden for families who are already struggling. School meal times provide much needed social interaction for children with Special Needs. For children like my daughter who have enteral feeding tubes it is a valuable learning process where they can learn to eat oral food amongst a group of friends.
Next September my children will no longer qualify for free school meals and we will have to pay. For us this is a huge pressure to find £2.20 per day, per child. Before you say ‘Well can’t they just take sandwiches?’ there is a huge dilemma here in terms of my daughter’s health.
Have you ever wondered why you can speak? Those valuable months spent weaning on to solids as a baby enabled the muscles in your mouth to develop in such a way that eventually your first words came. Every time you put food in your mouth your senses get used to the sensation of chewing and swallowing. It might sound straight forward but not if you are a child who spent much of the first year of your life with a Nasal Gastric Tube down your throat.
It took my daughter almost two years to try oral food without gagging and being sick. Two bowel surgeries and other procedures that followed left her extremely orally averse. We spent months dabbing one drop of yogurt on her lips to get her to entertain the idea that food might be ok. It took another year before the idea of a spoon entering her mouth became acceptable. My daughter could speak very little by aged three and it was only when her oral food intake increased that her language ability began to improve.
Ask every specialist involved in my daughters care and they will tell you that eating with her peer group is an essential part of her healing process. School meal times are a lifeline. I can still remember the first day that the school called to say my daughter had eaten an entire school meal and they didn’t know what to do about her feeding her through her gastrostomy tube. It was the first time in her life that she had eaten an entire meal. Of course it’s never quite as simple as they just start eating, far from it. My daughter has developmental delay, she becomes emotionally volatile under pressure and meal times are a huge pressure. Now aged seven nearly, she still doesn’t eat enough to sustain her own life.
I can’t take her school dinner away from her, I will have to struggle on and find the money for her meals because even on the days where she might only eat one thing on her plate she is at least eating. Without that stimulation of school dinner times there is a high probability that her speech will slow down in its development. Certain textures of foods are overwhelming and bread is one of them. If my daughter was sent to school with a traditional packed lunch she would eat nothing and face the next decade relying on her enteral feed through her gastrostomy feeding tube.
I am one of those families sitting in the middle of ‘middle class’ a definition that means nothing. I have a degree, I once ran my own business, both are signs of that upwardly mobile section of society that politicians and the press talk about as if we are all okay; we are doing just fine with our lives. But it is an urban myth because these labels mean absolutely nothing when your life is torn apart by disability. It is estimated that 84% of mothers of disabled children can’t work compared to 39% of mothers of non-disabled children. Only 3% of mothers of disabled children can work fulltime and a further 13% work part-time. I would love to go back to work and provide extra income for my family but here’s the catch. I would have to put my kids in a specialist play scheme over the school holidays or take on a respite worker. My local authority currently doesn’t provide reduced cost support. Instead my only option would be to buy in care from a local charity called ‘Take A Break’ and its fee for one to one support and play schemes in £14.45 per hour per person needing care.
Welcome to the world of the ‘Middle Class’ parent of a disabled child, do I sound like I am freeloading now? I am truly thankful for everything we have, and the free school meals for these first three years have helped keep my kids healthy and strong, at a time when our lives have been in complete emotional turmoil.
School meals have helped to keep my daughter alive and developing in a way that you perhaps until now could never have imagined. Free school meals aren’t just about helping the most vulnerable children who have no food at home, they are also part of a wider system of health in this country that will become blindsided by a Conservative government. Free school meals for all children at a critical time in their growing lives can make a difference to long term health. Let us not take away from our future generations the ability to make healthy choices in life. It is in education where we can start to make those changes. The school dinner menu is as much a part of our child’s education as the national curriculum.
NOTE: The statistics in this blog post are from reports by Contact a Family and The Papworth Trust. You can read in more detail about this here: