At the Liberal Democrat party conference in 2013, it was announced that the coalition government would extend free school meals to all infant school pupils. The party’s Education Minister David Laws was able to show that some children living in poverty were not eligible for them, whilst others who were eligible were opting out due to stigma.
This was a significant spending commitment that would have seemed far out of reach in the current economic climate. So how was it achieved?
This decision came on the back of an 18 month campaign by The Children’s Society. The campaign, Fair and Square, highlighted a range of health, educational and employment benefits if free school meals could be provided to all children in infant schools.
There are four clear lessons from the campaign that stand out for charities working to influence government spending at this time:
1. Focus on solving government’s problems
The Children’s Society anticipated civil servants would need to review eligibility for free school meals in line with the planned roll-out of universal credit. They contacted the team working on this issue in the Department for Education, and offered relevant research, ideas and costed solutions. They demonstrated how extending free school meals would meet other government goals around educational attainment, employment and nutrition.
2. Provide a strong evidence-base
Lily Caprani, The Children’s Society director of strategy and policy, emphasised how by offering relevant research data, the charity built a closer collaboration with civil servants. “The way you build your evidence base is very important. As a charity, it gives you the courage of your convictions. We didn’t just rely on the anecdotal evidence we were hearing from the frontline, although this is invaluable in highlighting the personal perspectives of the families involved. We were also able to analyse and use more objective data that came from our long-term research projects.”
3. Build support for a clear and simple ask
The charity identified a simple, clear policy ask, and through this was able to build a coalition of supporters, including teachers’ unions, health and disability charities, and religious organisations. They also commissioned a poll that showed 91% of the public were in favour of the move and ran a petition which received 90,000 signatures. They were able to demonstrate to politicians that, not only was it the right thing to do, it was an idea they could sell.
4. Tailor content to the audience
The campaign attracted 25,000 people who were new to the charity, and the team capitalised on opportunities to share some key facts about child poverty through online games and films. Data on the number of children in poverty who were missing out on free school meals was also broken down at constituency level. This was shared with MPs as part of the work to build cross-party back bench support.
I asked Lily how it felt the day the Lib Dems rang to give the heads-up that their campaign was about to herald a major government pledge. “Really satisfying,” she said. Something of an understatement when you consider the work of a small team of charity communicators has helped ensure many children living in poverty across the UK get a free cooked meal every week day.