Developing an historical imaginary: ‘Free school meals’ in England

Year: 2016

Author: Beckett, Lori

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper develops an ‘historical imaginary’ to interrogate the ways ‘free school meals’ are construed in England’s current neoliberal policy regime, notably as an official category in schools’ student census and in the disaggregation of achievement data. A cursory glance of policy development over time reveals the long-fought campaign by Bradford Independent Labour Party to advocate for free school meals among other initiatives in the late C19th, which was a stand against hardship – something that should give us pause to consider the structural realities of working people, families and children living in abject poverty – then given the industrial revolution and now following the long-term evolution of wealth and inequality (see Piketty, 2014; Dorling, 2014, 2011; Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010).The overarching aim of this paper is to imagine the past experiences of these working people, families and children but also the policy advocates who agitated for such reforms, as it happened, building towards 1904 when Bradford Local Authority was the first to institute ‘free school meals’ and eventually emulated by other local authorities. But this paper does not stop with these facts, which form part of the historical imaginary picture, because it calls into question documentary evidence and data analyses. This is not confined to the surviving documents left by leading individuals and newspaper commentaries, for example, rather it is to engage with sources such as visual history and materiality in history to illuminate what such reforms meant to the working people, families and students, in the biographical and personal dimensions (see McCulloch, 2011). It is also to engage with ‘the political energy of the archive’, discerning the differences of narration, cognisant of the ordering and legislating of the archival categories and distinctions to establish how truth is told and social division inscribed (see Popkewitz, 2013). This historical research into ‘free school meals’ is highly relevant in England’s current performativity regime because it serves as another touchstone to critically examine extant schools policy and school reforms with directions on routine national-school data analyses of achievement and test results and concomitant work with different student populations. Likewise these critical understandings add another dimension to research-informed policy advocacy, beginning with the criteria for ‘free school meals’ in the contemporary era, pointedly, parents’/carers’ low income and/or receipt of welfare benefits, coupled with professional sense about meeting poor students’ social and educational needs and wants, which should be coherent and continuous with the past.