Whitechapel: How Tower Hamlets Council is rolling out free school meals

Local authority begins rolling out policy to cover secondary pupils across the borough

Mayor Of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman, right, dines with staff and pupils at Swanlea School

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“This is the day to talk about what is happening – not letting the pursuit of perfection get in the way of achieving good,” said Brenda Landers, headteacher at Swanlea School in Whitechapel

Her lunch hall recently provided the backdrop for the launch of Tower Hamlets Council’s extension to its free school meals policy.

This sees all secondary school pupils living in the borough and going to state-funded schools within its borders, fed lunch at no cost to them or their parents.

The borough has funded meals for primary school pupils since 2014 on a similar basis – something the Mayor Of London has decided to do city-wide for this academic year.

This, however has been billed as an emergency measure to help with the cost of living and it’s unclear how long it will endure. 

In any case, Tower Hamlets had already been planning and budgeting for the extension to cover secondary pupils before City Hall’s move was announced.

It’s the first borough in England to fund meals at secondary schools, a scheme worth about £550 per child, per year. 

Billed as universal, the policy applies to all such families, irrespective of income – meaning those who can afford to pay also benefit.

Such policies – like the Winter Fuel Allowance, for example – often come under fire for squandering valuable resources on those who don’t really need the support.

But means testing is not without its own issues – where do you place the threshold? Who is excluded? 

The policy was officially launched over lunch at the school in Whitechapel

We don’t generally apply such ideas to educational settings themselves.

There’s an obvious absurdity to expecting students in a single class to attempt the same lesson with a significant imbalance in resources. 

Imagine a cookery session where a third of students had bought the ingredients for a recipe, a third had them provided for free and a third turned up with some, but not all, because they couldn’t afford the whole list.

It would be impossible for everyone to complete the dish.

So why is lunch any different?

For Lutfur Rahman, Mayor Of Tower Hamlets, the approach is about trying to ensure children don’t fall through the gaps.

“As a youngster, you need a decent hot meal,” he said.

“This is about caring for the people who need support, so we want nothing to come in the way of their attainment and life chances. 

“I remember when I was young, I used to line up for school meals and there were times when my father was out of work and I had free school meals or when he was in work and we had to pay.

“Sometimes if we didn’t have the money, I had bread, butter and jam and I didn’t always like it. Variety is important.

“Hot food is important. Having such a meal every day helps children function, behave better and achieve more.

“This is a poverty-stricken borough, with one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country.

“For me, education is an important method to escape from poverty. It’s so important to me – it gave me a life chance – so we should do whatever we can do to remove the hurdles to good attainment.

“It’s my passion and my belief that education should be a universal offer and, whatever we can do to assist this, should also be universal.

All secondary pupils living in the borough and attending schools within its borders now all qualify for free school meals

“I don’t know what’s happening in individual families, but I don’t want any children to be at risk – to come to school wondering if they will be given the money for tomorrow or a good packed lunch. 

“Now every child can line up for the same food – the same offer.

“It feels good, it feels exciting and I think the take-up over time will be greater than it is currently.

“When the children see they can have a meal – perhaps be with their friends, save some money – I think they’ll take up that offer.”

While hot meals – even free ones – may not compete with the lure of the playground and friends in good weather, Swanlea School is predicting a rise in pupils eating the food cooked by its in-house catering team.

“I don’t expect to see the number shoot up massively right now, but I do expect to see it increase over time,” said Brenda, who joined the school in 2005 as deputy head before taking charge in 2011. 

“Coming to school is a habit, eating lunch is a habit, so we will see an increase in youngsters doing that, but I expect it to be steady as our pupils get used to doing it.

“Some will prefer a packed lunch – these are teenagers and they will make decisions about those things.

“The educational benefit isn’t really a point for discussion for me – it’s just good in itself for children to eat. They can have a good meal – and that’s enough.

“Also, with universality, there’s no bureaucracy from the school’s point of view and that’s just delightful.

“It’s way easier for the school to manage and parents are pleased – especially those who would be considered the working poor.

“About 50% of our youngsters would be getting free school meals anyway, which is a very high percentage – but the next couple of layers up are still poor, just not poor enough to qualify. 

“They’re the ones that always get hit whenever you have a means-tested benefit – there is always a cut-off point. 

“Having a meal allows pupils to focus, to concentrate and it says that we care about them. It gives them time to sit down with their friends, have a nice chat and a nice time.

“Today, lunch was roast potatoes, gravy, vegetables and a chicken quarter, with a vegetarian option of lasagne.

“If we wanted to be popular, we’d give them cake, fizzy drinks and chips – but I’d lose my job. There are very strict guidelines on nutrition.

“Offering free meals is just a good thing to do and also the right thing. In a country as wealthy as this, no child should go to bed hungry.

Swanlea School headteacher Brenda Landers

“When we’ve got good mums and dads doing everything that we say they should and they still struggle to feed their children, that’s just not right in 21st century Britain.

“I find that deeply, deeply offensive and this is part of the solution.”

The situation for children living in the borough and going to school elsewhere or vice versa is less clear, with the council asking parents to contact it or other authorities for specific advice. 

Nevertheless the move begs the question that, if Tower Hamlets can do this and the Mayor Of London can go city-wide for primary pupils, why can’t other boroughs in the capital – or the whole country – do the same?

Find out more about free school meals in Tower Hamlets here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Whitechapel: How author Jane Austin came to write her latest novel Renegade

Writer follows previous work News From Nowhere with political novel that blends past and present

Author Jane Austin – image by Matt Grayson

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When someone rings you up and says: “Hello, my name is Jane Austin and I’m an author,” there’s an obvious temptation – even more so when writing up the subsequent interview.

For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a journalist in possession of a blank page must be in want of a glib, witty introduction to their piece.

But this isn’t the exquisitely tawdry Jane Austen Centre in Bath (well worth a visit, if you enjoy the process of being indelicately fleeced as a tourist), so I won’t bang on about my subject’s Pride in her work or how it took little Persuasion to arrange the interview.

Now that’s out of the way, I can write about something far more interesting – Austin herself.

As mentioned, Jane is an author and recently published her second novel, Renegade.

Based in Whitechapel (now a mere three minutes from Canary Wharf, thanks to the arrival of Crossrail), she’s also a member of the online book group based at the Idea Store in the estate’s Churchill Place shopping mall. 

“I’ve always been in a book group and I love sharing books, talking about them and the ideas that come out of them,” she said.

“This particular group is quite cosmopolitan and reads such interesting books – I think it works really well and I would encourage anybody to join.

“I love pushing my own boundaries and horizons, because you can live so many lives through books.”

Detail from the cover of Jane's lates novel Renegade
Detail from the cover of Jane’s lates novel Renegade

Her latest novel Renegade tells the story of Leeds professor Justin who is seeking redemption in the ashes of his youthful idealism and struggling to hold his family together as his son is drawn into radical politics by his lover who joins a Kurdish women’s militia to fight ISIS.

Meanwhile revelations about Justin’s past as an urban bomber leave his wife devastated, turning his life upside down. 

“I wanted to write a political novel, because I had some experience to draw on and the challenge of writing from a male point of view appealed to me.

“I created Justin and pitched him into a very difficult situation.

“I wanted to find out what would happen to a man who had got involved in very radical politics as an urban guerrilla when he was younger, who did things he didn’t pay the price for at the time.

“Now we see him, in later life, confronted by the family of the man who paid the price, and I wanted to explore how he dealt with that.

“Justin is a man who got involved in very left-wing libertarian politics and believed utterly at the time that he was doing the right thing, continuing  to justify it even when everything went terribly wrong. But then what happened?”

While Renegade isn’t autobiographical as such, Jane was able to draw on her own life.

“For 10 years I was involved with a left-wing revolutionary organisation, which was called the International Marxist Group, although I certainly don’t share Justin’s libertarian politics” she said.

“We were involved in getting embedded in industrial jobs in order to work alongside people for political reasons – on the railways, where I was a guard at Marylebone station, or in a number of jobs in the knitwear industry and a whole range of manual jobs.

“Part of the drive was for women to take on manual jobs, and I was one of the first female guards to break into that, but the knitwear industry was very gender divided.

“Then came a job where you could apply to be an inspector, which involved three shifts, but when I applied I was told that they couldn’t have women working at night, so we took it to the Equal Opportunities Commission and they fought it with us and we won.

“The novel is set in the 1970s and I wasn’t politically active then, but I was familiar with the political landscape on the left and I could draw on the kinds of debates and nit-picking discussions that went on. 

“I would hope readers make connections with some of the things that are happening today, but for me Renegade is a more universal story about how we all come to terms with our past and present.

“In our younger lives we can be different and in later years we may not recognise ourselves – it’s about how we integrate past and present and different aspects of ourselves. That to me is the story of Justin and how he sorts himself out, if he does.”

Jane says she wanted to write a political novel
Jane says she wanted to write a political novel – image by Matt Grayson

Formerly a teacher, Jane became a novelist after taking a course when she was nearing retirement from her role in community education at the University Of York. 

“I did an evening class on creative writing part time for three years and in the end decided I wanted to write a novel,” she said.

“That came about because I have a collection of family letters from the First World War written by my grandfather, and this developed into my first book News From Nowhere.

“It was from the point of view of a young woman called Bronwen, the sister who was left at home and was receiving this flood of letters from her brothers and father from the Western Front.

“Around that I wove a story about how a young woman grew up in that period, and how the war and the world influenced her life. I got a taste for it, joined a writers’ group and became really involved.”

Having relocated to London from York to be closer to her twin grandchildren and her daughter, the actor and writer Naomi Sheldon, Jane is now working on her third book.

“My next novel is based on the history of somebody called Eliza Raine,” said Jane.

“She interests me because she was born in the late 18th century in Madras to an Indian mother and a father who worked as a doctor for the East India Company.

“When he died he put in his will that the two girls should be taken care of by their guardian in York, so he went six months on the boat to Madras and took them six months back to York.

“My story is about her journey really, socially, emotionally and physically over that voyage and the years after.

“There’s also a connection with Gentleman Jack – Anne Lister – who Eliza fell in love with when they were teenagers at a boarding school in York.

“They had this passionate affair, that for many reasons destroyed Eliza who spent many of her years in silence.”

 Jane is a member of the book group based at Idea Store Canary Wharf
Jane is a member of the book group based at Idea Store Canary Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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