Posted in Free School Meals, Uncategorized

Universal Infant Free School Meals: Improving behaviour at lunchtime

Our final blog in this four-part series on how to make Universal Free School Meals (UIFSM) value for money, focusses on how midday supervisors (MSAs) engage with pupils, and how they manage behaviour at lunchtime.

What MSAs say and how they say it is a key factor in whether or not pupils will eat their lunch. If pupils are not engaged in the right way, all the solutions we have proposed in our earlier blogs will be ineffective.

The problems

The ethos and values of a school are easy to evidence in the classroom, but even if a school’s Ofsted rating for behaviour is outstanding, it often goes a bit pear-shaped at lunchtime. There are two key problems here which need to be addressed.


Whenever we speak to school councillors, they usually say that MSAs are kind and lovely. However, when we dig a bit deeper, they will say their problems aren’t resolved at lunchtime. This is because MSAs aren’t trained teachers and sometimes struggle to deal with poor behaviour.

As a result, they often resort to using inappropriate language: “Come on, hurry up finish your dinner”, or if the pupil answers back, responses such as “How dare you argue with me!”  Language like this will put most children off eating their lunch. Interestingly, even teaching assistants (TAs) who often work as MSAs at lunchtime have the same problem. How the pupils treat them in the classroom is often very different to how they treat them at lunchtime.

Behaviour policy

Many schools we visit have behaviour policies which work well in the classroom but not at lunchtime. Pupils will often complain that they have been harshly dealt with by MSAs/TAs, or that those who were really causing problems got off too lightly. When running some MSA training at a school in Hertfordshire recently, we asked the MSAs about the excellent set of rules for behaviour in and out of lessons featured in the Behaviour Policy, (written by key stage 2 pupils), though they were not aware of them.

Once pupils realise the MSAs are unaware of school rules, they can play one set of staff off against the other. This then leads to very unkind and disrespectful comments such as “You’re just a dinner lady, you can’t tell me what to do”. If lunchtime starts to feel a little hostile and unfriendly, pupils are less likely to eat their meal and they definitely won’t be ready for learning in the afternoon either – one of the key aims of the UIFSM policy.

The solutions

Here are our evidence-based solutions to these two problems:

MSA training

MSAs need training on how to manage challenging behaviour and assert authority. They need to understand that focussing on what you want a pupil to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do, is much more effective. If a pupil is shouting, the response shouldn’t be “Will you stop shouting?” It should be something like “I need you to listen to me”.

Once MSAs start talking to children in this way, it becomes much easier to engage positively with pupils. We observed one young boy in tears, saying he didn’t want to eat his shepherd’s pie because the potato topping was burnt. One MSA calmly talked to the boy and said “Don’t worry, I can make this pie look lovely”. She then simply removed the burnt topping to reveal the white potato underneath.

Because the MSA had listened to the pupil and then solved his problem, he happily started eating it. This is a simple example, but if this situation hadn’t been resolved, the pupil wouldn’t have eaten his dinner and would have returned to class miserable and not ready to learn.

Another reason for investing in MSA training is to give them a voice and make them feel valued. There is a perception, rightly or wrongly held by MSAs, that school leaders don’t support them and don’t listen to what they have to say. When we ask MSAs what they want from school leaders and how the relationship can be improved, the answers are clear, constructive and very easy to implement.

“We want a pupil wellbeing book,” said one MSA in a training session we ran in a Hertfordshire school. Another said: “We want teachers to let us know which children in their class are being challenging so we can keep an eye on them at lunchtime.” Effective training is a combination of giving MSAs a voice, and teaching them how to promote positive behaviour that makes the training outcomes sustainable. One MSA from Croydon wrote in her written evaluation of the training: “I was made to feel important and heard.”

Lunchtime charter

Here’s how to make sure the Behaviour Policy is effective and consistently implemented at lunchtime:

  • Invite MSAs to work with the school council and create a lunchtime charter identifying rules they are happy to follow, then prominently display the charter in the dining room and playground.
  • Ask MSAs to wear laminated cards on lanyards summarising the rewards for good behaviour, the agreed lunchtime rules, and consequences for bad behaviour.

How will this help with UIFSM? The lunchtime charter will include very specific rules that relate to eating and socialising. Below are two examples which are currently being used by a Kent school:

  • We want our dining hall to be like a restaurant where we talk to our friends and wait for them to finish eating.
  • We learn to use a knife and fork properly and talk to each other politely and kindly.

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