At a time of diminishing central Government cash, and with Councils hamstrung by the need for referenda to approve the most modest of Council Tax increases, there can surely be no scope for growth items in our forthcoming budgets?
On the contrary, I believe it is a vital part of demonstrating Local Government’s leadership role within our communities.
If we don’t identify specific local need, and develop policies to address that need, how can we claim to be in touch with those whom we strive to serve?
The nation’s assembled media descended upon us in January for the launch of Blackpool Council’s free school breakfast pilot scheme.
And I dare say, after a few hours work at one of our excellent primary schools, many of them were a bit peckish and didn’t much feel like working until they got a good meal.
I’m happy to say though for the next few months at least, and I hope long into the future, that won’t be the case for the young children of the town.
Under our radical proposals, all 12,000 primary school pupils will receive a healthy breakfast, to kick start their day in the right way.
This, we believe, will help them to focus on learning and not rumbling tummies, allowing teachers to do their job and giving the children the best possible opportunity to succeed.
We need to create a generation of children who understand the importance of nutrition, who will then go on to provide that nutrition to their children.
The idea has been well supported by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and welcomed by the Children’s Society, whose research suggests the scheme is much needed.
I’m excited to see its effect, although I suspect much of that will only be demonstrated in the medium to long term. We will be working with academics from a leading University to ensure that the pilot scheme is robustly assessed against key performance indicators and statistical analysis – that is the evidence base upon which future decisions will be taken
There are naysayers, of course, but I’m happy to tackle them head on.
Some have questioned the need for universality – providing free breakfasts to everyone. But restricting breakfast to those on benefits massively stigmatises the recipients and loses all of the benefits of communal eating.
And what about working parents – where families are working often the day is very long for their children. The day starts early and children are up and out to stay with grandparents or neighbours and friends until the school day begins. By the time they get to school it can be some time since they had their breakfast and they are often hungry and ready for something to eat – if you’ve had your breakfast at 6.00 it is a long time until lunch time.
Others have said it rewards poor parenting. I prefer to look on it as ensuring children do not become victims of poor parenting, providing them with a culture of healthy eating and learning, which will lead to improved educational attainment.
It also costs a fair bit of money at a time when jobs are being lost within the council and outside – very true. However, the scheme will save money for hardworking families, put money back into our local economy through local sourcing and create jobs for support staff.
If anyone wants to argue the toss with me over whether the wellbeing and nutrition of the children of Blackpool is a priority, I’ll happily have that debate. If others are content to allow the current financial climate to paralyse our inherent sense of fairness and fetter our ambition for our children, then so be it.
In the meantime I’ll be working to make the policy a success and push things forward. The rewards we stand to reap from this programme in years to come (improved attendance, behaviour, attainment – and therefore ultimately a more healthy, highly skilled and appealing workforce) will come in direct proportion to our willingness to sow the seeds of hope and opportunity today.