Devolution as a policy crucible: the case of universal free school meals

Publication type

Journal Article


Publication date

June 1, 2010


The election of the Scottish government, in May 2007, raised expectations that devolution may at last give rise to a sea change in the development of welfare policy. Certainly, in the areas of education and health the newly elected Scottish National Party (SNP) Scottish government, despite its minority control of the parliament, lost no time in announcing significant changes to previous policies in the areas of hospital closures and primary school class sizes. The proposals to introduce universal free school meals in all primary schools for school children in years one to three from 2010, following a pilot in selected local authorities, was one of these changes.
This policy shift is of significance for three reasons. First, the previous executive had explicitly rejected proposals for universal free school meals on two previous occasions. Second, it represented a movement towards universality and away from the strategy of targeting and means-testing welfare adhered to by both the Westminster UK government and the previous Scottish Executive. As such, therefore, the introduction of universal free school meals marks a significant victory for the campaigning groups behind the move. Finally, and perhaps of still greater significance, the introduction of a pilot scheme for universal provision in England, announced by the Westminster government in September 2008, further highlights one other goal of devolution: that of a potential for policy experimentation and divergence. Universal free school provision may be the first example of devolution providing a crucible for welfare policy for the wider United Kingdom.
This paper assesses the extent to which an extension of the entitlement to free school meals is likely to improve the access of free school meals to children from the poorest of households and the extent to which changes in free school meal provision leads to a regionally specific impact on child poverty due to variations of household composition within the English regions and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In doing so we suggest that evidence for the advantages of universal provision provides a positive example of devolution's potential for acting as a welfare policy crucible.

Published in

Poverty and Public Policy: a Global Journal of Social Security, Income, Aid, and Welfare


Volume: 2 (1)




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