The Labour Party has pledged to give all state primary school children free school meals if it returns to government.
Currently, only pupils in reception classes and in years one and two are automatically eligible for free school meals.
But Labour plans to extend this right to years three, four, five and six – and to pay for it by imposing VAT on private school fees.
At the moment, private schools – which are attended by just 7% of pupils – do not have to add VAT to their fees because they have charitable status.
If such a tax was imposed, Labour says it would raise enough to ensure that 2.4 million more pupils – or all the state primary school children in Britain – could enjoy a free lunch. VAT in Britain is usually charged at 20%.
It is estimated that VAT on school fees would raise £1.5 billion per year and that Labour’s plan to expand free school meal provision would cost £700-£900 million annually.
Labour argues that this policy would help families who do not qualify for free school meals, but still struggle to afford them. The party also maintains that free school meals would even benefit children from wealthier backgrounds.
Research conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Centre for Social Research shows that free school meals can improve educational achievement for all pupils.
The research found that, on average, if a child receives free school meals, they will progress two months faster than if they had not received them.
Free school meals also seem to improve the health of pupils. While more than 90% of school meals contain vegetables or fruit, only 58% of packed lunches do.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “No child in the UK should go hungry at school.”
“By charging VAT on private school fees, Labour will make sure all primary school children, no matter what their background, get a healthy meal at school.”
Julie Robinson, head of the Independent Schools Council, claimed that Labour’s sums did not add up and that the party’s proposals would hurt hardworking families.
Ms Robinson said, “A third of all pupils at our schools are on reduced fees and are from families where both parents work hard to pay the fees.”
“If this measure was introduced, smaller independent schools may close, driving more children back to be funded in the state system.”
But Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner pointed out that the private sector could afford the cost and that many other businesses have to pay VAT.
Ms Rayner said, “Why should the state school system subsidise the private sector?”
Ms Rayner added that Labour’s plans would help “create a true meritocracy in this country and ensure every child can do well.”