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No such thing as a free lunch

One year after the introduction of free lunches for key stage one pupils, £600m scheme could be at risk

Posted by Stephanie Broad | September 28, 2015 | People, policy, politics

The universal free school meals programme was launched in September 2014 for infant pupils. Figures from the Department for Education, published in June, show that 85.5% of these children – more than 1.6 million – are taking up the offer. 

Despite the success of the programme, there has been speculation that as George Osborne looks to make cuts from unprotected budgets, school meals could be in for the chop. As free school meals are not part of the per-pupil protected schools budget, they are potentially at risk, despite David Cameron’s reassurance that it will not be cut. 

Russell Hobby, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT said: “There have been some alarming reports recently that the government may consider scrapping the Universal Infant Free School Meals project, after only one year in operation.

“Such a move would be a grave mistake and a false economy. Since all infants have become entitled to a free meal, our members have reported back to us benefits such as improved concentration and readiness to learn. 

Alison Garnham the Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, has said: “Policies to address child poverty and issues children are experiencing in school should not be seen as a cost, but as a saving.”   

Mr Hobby agreed: “We believe that the government will honour its commitment. What’s needed is a swift and unequivocal statement to that effect, so that schools can carry on providing free meals with confidence that the funding isn’t going to disappear. That message could and should be delivered straight away. Schools which are signing contracts with catering companies this term can’t afford to wait until the November spending review only to find out that the policy has been changed.” 

School Food Plan reported earlier in September that 95% of parents taking up free school meals for their child are seeing the benefits. 

Almost one quarter (23%) of parents with children eating a free infant meal say the main benefit to their child is the greater variety of food they will now eat, according to a new survey commissioned by the School Food Plan and carried out by Opinium Research. The online survey of 5,021 English adults aged 18+ from 17th to 28th July 2015 included 503 parents of children receiving free infant school meals. 

The same proportion (23%) say they most value their child eating a proper meal at lunchtime, whilst almost one fifth (19%) say their child has enjoyed trying new foods.

Parents are seeing the positive impact school meals can have on children’s eating habits, and the value of eating a ‘proper meal’ with friends at lunchtime. 

Karen Collett, Headteacher at Haddenham St Mary’s School said: “I am seeing the difference that free infant school meals make. The children are enjoying eating a hot meal, they are keen to try new food and lunchtime has become a more social event with children engaged in conversation. Class teachers have noticed improved levels of concentration in afternoon lessons particularly amongst children who previously found it a difficult time of the school day. It has also been a catalyst for implementing wider food education activities which the children are loving.” 

Highlighting the achievement of the 16,500 schools who have implemented the policy and its impact on children’s nutrition, Linda Cregan, Chief Executive of the Children’s Food Trust said: “Schools achieved what many thought was the impossible this year, serving up great food to more than 1.6 million infant children every day – including children living in poverty, for whom free school meals can make the biggest difference. Schools had little time to prepare but they tackled all sorts of issues; many kitchens and dining spaces finally got the investment they needed but the job is far from over, so capital funding needs to continue. And as the government shapes its Child Obesity Strategy, now is the time to be measuring how this scheme is improving children’s nutrition during the school day, especially for children living in poverty for whom access to healthier foods is often more difficult.” 

petition to keep the Universal Infant Free School Meals had over 32,000 signatures at the time of writing. 

How has the free school meals programme affected your school? Send your stories to the editor Stephanie Broad.    

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