Posted in opinion, policy, schools

What universal free school meals really mean

This week we have our very first guest blogpost by Morag Lyall, editor of EDUcatering magazine which offers a monthly look at the school food industry.

When, on 17th September, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that funding would be provided for every child in reception, Year 1 and Year 2 – no matter what their family’s income – to receive a hot, nutritious school lunch, the industry was elated.

As the editor of EDUcatering, an industry magazine dedicated to the school catering sector, I have spoken to countless people since the announcement (which was completely unexpected and, frankly, out of the blue) and it is largely considered to be one of the most important moves in the history of school food.

There has, of course, been some dissention in the ranks, but for the most part it has been out of concern for ‘what happens next?’ It’s all very well to give free meals for all, but how will schools cope with the increase in school meals take-up come September 2014? Schools will need to hire more staff, extend the lunch break, and some schools don’t even have the space in the dining hall to cope with 60% of pupils eating school dinners, let alone 80 or 100%.

The announcement comes after the publication of the School Food Plan in July, a report into what is working well in the school meals industry in the UK and how the system can improve. Authors John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby came up with a series of action plans, which have now been passed on to Myles Bremner from Garden Organic, to see to fruition. All but one of these action plans was agreed to by the government. One, that every pupil in primary school should receive free school meals, was not implemented.

Until now. It was completely unexpected and when the Plan was launched at the LACA National Conference, the UK’s national association of school caterers, nobody seriously believed that a recommendation for universal free school meals would be accepted by the government.

After all, this is something that the industry has been campaigning on for years, from the charity the Children’s Food Trust (which was set up as the School Food Trust after Jamie Oliver’s involvement) and catering associations from each country in the UK. Poverty groups have also been fighting for years for more funding for children from low-income families and those just above the threshold, groups including the Children’s Society and Magic Breakfast.

Some people will always remain sceptical of universal free school meals. But according to Clegg, the move will ease the strain on parents financially, while eating healthy meals will boost attainment and building a ‘stronger economy and a fairer society’. What’s not to like?

There is strong evidence to support this claim and therefore to support Clegg’s generous pay-out. A government-backed pilot scheme to provide all primary school children with a free school meal ran in Durham between 2009 and 2011 (there have been others too). Uptake of the meals increased to 90% (the national average is around 42%) and it was clear that for some children in deprived areas, this was the only quality hot meal that children were getting. From an educational standpoint, behaviour improved significantly, and so their ability to learn. What is also telling is that the benefits were most obvious among Key Stage 1 pupils, which this policy will include.

The benefits of having a healthy, nutritious hot meal regardless of family income, is plain to see. And these points do not even cover the expected impact it will have on reducing obesity in young children.

The industry will now await further details of the funding, both in England and in devolved governments, later in the autumn.

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This education blog is associated with TheSchoolBus, a revolutionary online resource for the school leaders. TheSchool Bus wants to ease the burden on school leadership team by providing a wealth of expert advice and resource. Our easy to use, intuitive website offers a range of time-saving resources, with immediate access to hundreds of useful templates, guidance and the latest insights provided by top brands like Lloyds Bank, RM Education, Berg, ParentPay and more. Your time is our business. Visit us here.

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