Wednesday, January 04, 2006

In praise of milk snatching

One of the factors behind Mrs Thatcher's election victory was her act of abolishing free milk in schools.

Some people hated her for it and dubbed her the "milk snatcher". But they didn't have to drink the stuff. The crates were not kept in a refrigerator, so on a hot day it was already halfway to going sour by the time mid-morning break came. The trick then was to avoid drinking the stuff.

Yes, Mrs Thatcher was swept to power by a generation of grateful first-time voters who wanted to thank her for delivering them from the horrors of school milk.

This is why I am far from shocked by today's report which urges the government to consider ending the public subsidy for milk for primary school children.

Other Liberal Democrats certainly are shocked. Our education spokesman, Ed Davey, has issued a press release on the subject:

"A healthy school diet plays a vital role in giving children good habits for life.

"Mrs Thatcher was the last Education Secretary to attack this scheme and it seems Blair and Kelly seem intent on stealing every Conservative policy they can think of.

"We should be encouraging kids to drink milk rather than fizzy drinks."

Peter Black is indignant:
Independent consultants, London Economics, may consider this provision a waste of money but what are the odds that they employ highly-paid executives who can afford to ensure that their children are well-nourished?
And so is Colin Ross in a post entitled "Blair, Blair, the Milk Snatcher".

But hold on. The BBC story on this says:

The London Economics report said a mark of the scheme's "inefficiency" was that the average price schools charged parents for subsidised milk - 11.4p for a third of a pint - exceeded the supermarket price for milk which was not subsidised - 8.4 to 10p.

So it is poor value. And is it good for children's health? The Guardian quotes Mike Rayner from the British Heart Foundation as saying:

"I think the milk subsidy should have been abandoned a long time ago. For some children, lower-fat dairy products provide an important source of calcium, but they are not the only source and it would be better for health to subsidise fruit or even bread."

But surely milk is good for you. We all need calcium.

Again from the Guardian:

The report also argues that the scheme's effect on child health is small. Councils that take up the subsidy are obliged to provide free milk to children whose families are on certain state benefits. Milk's main nutritional benefit is that it provides calcium, but children between four and 10 years are not generally short of this mineral. About three-quarters of British children aged 11-18 are short of calcium, but they are not covered by the scheme. There is little evidence that it encourages children to keep drinking milk into their teens.

Free or subsidised school milk was a solution to the problems of the 1940s. Today, when everyone is worried about obesity in schoolchildren, we face different problems. It is those we should be trying to solve.

And politically we should be attacking Tony Blair for not being Liberal enough, rather than for not being Labour enough.


James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

You could have also mentioned that, being a multiracial society these days, significant numbers of children - particularly blacks - are lactose intolerant. Forcing milk down their throats does them vastly more harm than good.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

(...the milk marketing board's adverts, showing a black kid drinking milk under the banner "the white stuff" was particularly insensitive on this issue)

Anonymous said...

Very true.

Since joining the party I've started to see more reactionary elements in the party who will react against a change in policy. Its actually a rather conservative principle...

Of course, change for changes sake is not good, but we should look to see whether policies make sense today.
I would love to see a massive look at policy and institutions to see what function they served in the past, what they do today and if they're needed, or if there is a better way of doing things today...
We should always look and challange unfounded assumptions: this is one example, another is the proposals for semi-independent state schools. The assumption is that they will only take middle-class students, however experience in both Sweden (who are always being held up as great social democrats) and the US is that it is the poorest who benefit most by being able to opt-out of a mediocre state controlled system. Indeed I see no reason that every school should not be independantly run with direct state funding on a per-pupil basis. Surely this is as fair as any other system with the added benefit of reducing beurocracy and state power, however this is an anathema to many people who are essentially conservative and do not wish to challenge the status-quo or received wisdom.