It’s over a year since Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) was first introduced and there have already been reports that the policy could be scrapped. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he is very proud of UIFSM and after the money spent on implementing the scheme, he is firmly committed to it.
So, should the policy be shelved or not? It all boils down to value for money. The rationale for offering all infants free school meals was based on pilot research that suggested infants who were offered free school meals, made between four to eight weeks more progress than similar children in comparison areas.
If the policy has a positive impact on pupil progress and helps ensure less children end up obese, then you could argue it is money well spent. In fact Diabetes UK, the National Obesity Forum and the British Medical Association state that: “With one in three children leaving primary school overweight or obese, ensuring a nutritionally balanced school lunch has never been so important.
“A free school meals policy could end up paying for itself many times and reduce the spiralling costs to the NHS of treating obesity and other diet-related illnesses.”
Is this policy having a positive effect on improving progress and helping to reduce the number of children who are overweight, though?
Recipe for Change has identified four key issues that schools face, which, if they aren’t tackled, will mean that this won’t become a value for money policy. However, we firmly believe that UIFSM can improve readiness for learning, increase concentration and as a result, improve progress if our proposed evidence-based solutions to these problems are adopted.
This blog focusses on the first key issue – making the dining room appealing.
The dining room: steps to success
Dining room environment
If pupils end up queuing for a long time, they can’t sit with their friends or the dining room is noisy, the UIFSM policy will have no impact whatsoever on readiness for learning and progress as it is unlikely that the children will feel inclined to eat.
Pupils feeling rushed as friends will not wait for them to finish, leads to meals being dumped in the bin irrespective of whether they actually want to eat the meal or not. As a result, the children will go back into afternoon classes talking about unresolved lunchtime incidents. That means lost curriculum time and in turn, rates of progress may actually worsen, rather than improve! Sadly, this is what happens in many schools.
We recently spoke to two headteachers, both from East Sussex. One of them, who had just started as headteacher at a new school this academic year, said: “I decided to join the Year 5 and Year 6 queue for school dinners to see how long it would take to get served. It took me 20 minutes.” The other headteacher said she timed how long it took for a midday supervisor to notice a pupil who was patiently waiting with their hand up. It took eight minutes.
Why the problem persists
So, why do some school dining rooms end up becoming feeding stations where children are literally herded in and herded out again? There are two key reasons.
Firstly, headteachers know all about good classroom provision and what teachers should and shouldn’t be doing; however, they are often unsure of what good dining room provision looks like and what caterers should and shouldn’t be doing. Secondly, as and when a headteacher does decide to communicate with their school cook, the response to making any changes is often: “We can’t do that”, or “We haven’t got time”, or “It will cost more money”. As a result, the lunchtime problems persist and nothing changes.
Restaurant style lunchtimes
Schools should aspire to create a dining room that pupils actually want to go to and not just some corridor to play. Not only will this help improve the uptake of school meals, but more importantly, should ensure that most of your pupils actually eat their meals.
So, how is this achieved? Simply by creating a restaurant style lunchtime which, like any good restaurant, is conducive to both eating and socialising.
In the classroom, children know what is expected of them, what they can and can’t do, who they will be sitting with and where. Although the dining room isn’t a classroom, the same principles need to be applied. One of the evidence-based ideas Recipe for Change have used for some time is to create a series of set sittings, where children sit in friendship groups on the same table each day. Knowing who they will be sitting with, where they are sitting and at what time, immediately creates a much calmer environment for pupils and reduces noise because the children no longer need to rush around trying to find their friends. This strategy is particularly effective for children with special educational needs and disabilities, who thrive on routine.
Just like the classroom, the dining room needs rules, such as waiting for friends before leaving the dining room and not being able to leave for at least 15 minutes, to encourage fast eaters to socialise with slow eaters.
The impact on UIFSM
How will these changes make UIFSM value for money? Firstly, it will improve readiness to learn because children are much less likely to go back into class and talk about unresolved lunchtime incidents. Secondly, lost curriculum time will be reduced because disruption is minimised so progress therefore, should improve. Finally, school leaders won’t have to spend significant periods of time in the afternoon resolving lunchtime problems.
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