Posted in Free School Meals, Funding, policy, schools

Why Free School Meals can offer everything and the kitchen sink

This week, we have a new blog by Paul Aagaard, Director at Recipe for Change.  The organisation will soon become a contributor for TheSchoolBus site , and will provide informative resources on the implementation of universal free school meals for infants which is set to kick-off from September 2014.

Recipe for Change has a proven track record in improving behaviour and concentration by increasing school food provision. They develop and implement lunchtime improvement programmes that often include introducing systemic changes to this daily routine practice. To achieve this, they work in partnership with local authorities and caterers and consult with the whole school community to ensure everyone has their say and to ensure everyone is supportive of any change to school food provision.

Like many headteachers, Emma Payne at St Mary Redcliffe Primary in Bristol believes that there’s “no simple solution” to universal free school meals (UFSM) implementation. But, as the Guardian published the first of a series of articles[1] focusing on the challenges her school is facing, Payne said that “we will find one, because that’s what we do”. So what can schools like St Mary Redcliffe do if they face capacity issues in the kitchen and the dining room? Is this, as Payne suggests, a “complex solution that takes time” or is there a simpler solution?

Solving the kitchen sink drama

When it comes to dealing with the kitchen sink there is government funding available. But it’s unclear at the moment which schools will get a share of the £150 million and whether the new kitchens will be ready in time for September. So whilst schools like St Mary Redcliffe are waiting to find out if they’re going to get a new kitchen, what else can they be doing?

Hiring a kitchen pod, which can cook up to 150 meals a day at a cost of approximately £1,000 a month, is one solution for a school like St Mary Redcliffe that needs to prepare up to an additional 120 meals a day. But before this option is considered, it’s important to establish whether kitchen staff working longer hours, an increase in staffing levels and changing working patterns is a way to increase capacity. As the School Food Plan points out: “School catering teams often feel that they are working at full capacity, when in fact they might be working within a current set-up that slows them down”[2]. For example, serving school meals from two hot trolleys located in the dining room is one way to make sure large volumes of children get served quickly.

Managing dining hall capacity

Despite a significant increase in the school roll, many school dining halls haven’t been extended since they were first built. As a result the dining hall isn’t big enough; it’s often very crowded and noisy, and isn’t conducive to eating or socialising. How can schools like St Mary Redcliffe, with over 400 children and only fifteen tables, manage this capacity problem and ensure the dining hall environment is calm, relaxed and gives children enough time to eat their dinner?

Believe it or not, there is a relatively simple solution for St Mary Redcliffe, and that’s creating four 20-25 minute sittings running from 11.40 to 13.20. Assuming the folding tables can seat up to 8 pupils, each sitting could accommodate up to 120 children, with some spare capacity for those in the first, second and third sitting to eat for longer if they wanted to.

However, this simple solution becomes a bit more complicated when you consider how it would impact on the academic day. Starting lunchtime five minutes earlier at 11.40 means some classes would lose learning minutes and finishing at 1.20 would mean that PE in the hall would start late. On that basis, is this solution a non-starter? If you are a school that believes lunchtime is purely about feeding our children and nothing else, then yes, it is. But if you are a school that recognises lunchtime has a strategic value and can help improve school performance, then it’s worth considering seriously. Part of the solution to dealing with UFSM is to look at lunchtime in a different way and see it as a real opportunity to make our children do better at school.

Lunchtime and school improvement

Schools will prioritise interventions on the basis of evidence and impact to support Ofsted judgements. Extending lunchtime, therefore, and losing learning minutes doesn’t sound like a great idea. This is where headteachers need to make a paradigm shift in their perception. What would you prefer, a shorter lunchtime that is chaotic and rushed, leading to children talking about unresolved incidents and therefore lose learning minutes in the afternoon, or a longer, calmer and more relaxed lunchtime where learning outcomes aren’t compromised because children are ready to learn in the afternoon? And here’s the next paradigm shift in perception. Lunchtime is, in its own right, a learning opportunity which is another under-exploited way of making our children do better. To support numeracy, for example, one school in Yorkshire improved instant recall by introducing multiplication plates at lunchtime with the times tables printed on them. Although lunchtime shouldn’t be seen as another class, it can be used very effectively to help reinforce learning outcomes.

Children’s socialisation is another key benefit of getting lunchtime right. We teach our children about friendships and how to communicate with each other in PSHE classes, so why not use lunchtime as a way of putting that learning into practice? As Ed Baines, Senior Lecturer in Psychology for the Institute of Education, says: “School lunchtimes provide one of the main opportunities for free social interaction with friends and peers and – worryingly – for some it might be the only time”. [3]

What evidence do we have that a good lunchtime can improve attainment and progress and how does it compare with other interventions? The Sutton Trust Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit[4] claim that a phonics intervention, for example, can result in children making on average eight months more progress. The UFSM pilot findings[5] revealed that children made up to two months more progress. This doesn’t compare very favourably. However, social and emotional learning interventions can, according to the Sutton Trust, add six months progress, particularly those that “are embedded into routine educational practices”. A well-organised lunchtime – which is a routine practice – that motivates children to engage in good conversation could result in children making up to eight months progress when the impact of socialisation is combined with the UFSM findings.

If a good lunchtime can make a positive impact on progress, isn’t it worth spending some time on throwing everything and the kitchen sink at creating a system that is designed for children, not adults, so they are ready to learn again in the afternoon?

If you’d like to learn more about creating a lunchtime experience which is calm, relaxing and enjoyable for everyone, visit

Follow Recipe for Change on Twitter @Recipe_4_Change

recipe for change


  1. Schools Struggle with Free School Meals Initiative
  2. School Food Plan – Q&A for Headteachers
  3. Let’s do (school) lunch: lessons in social and emotional development can never replace the real thing
  4. The Education Endwoment Foundation Toolkit
  5. The DfE’s Evaluation of the free school meals pilot: impact report

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