The Green Party has campaigned for universal provision of free school meals in the past and research published last week provides evidence for the efficacy of this policy. Apart from the benefits to children outlined below the policy would end costly, cumbersome and bureaucratic administration of Free School Meals applications by local authorities, the collection of 'dinner money' in schools and enable planning of a school meals service based on overall pupil numbers.
The findings should make the Our Lady of Grace Primary school, Dollis Hill, think again about its plans to do away with hot meals and provide sandwiches only to children entitled to free school meals.
From School Food Trust LINK
Research measuring the impact of offering free school meals to more children in specific areas of England found significant improvements in their attainment, as well as benefits for diet and take up of healthy school meals.
The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Bryson Purdon Social Research looked at pilot schemes in Durham and Newham which offered free school meals to all children at primary school, and at a scheme in Wolverhampton to extend eligibility for free school meals to include families receiving working tax credits. Their findings include:
Our Chief Executive, Judy Hargadon, said: “These findings are serious food for thought. Offering free school meals to every child in Newham and Durham helped to make them more likely to eat a better diet at school, do significantly better in class – with an average of two months more progress by pupils at key stages 1 and 2 – and less fussy about what they ate at home.
- The universal pilot had a significant positive impact on attainment for primary school pupils at Key Stages 1 and 2, with pupils in the pilot areas making between four and eight weeks’ more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas. These effects could have arisen either through the provision of free school meals directly or through the wider activities that accompanied the pilot (such as the promotion of school meals and healthy eating to pupils and parents) or both.
- The improvements in attainment tended to be strongest amongst pupils from less affluent families and amongst those with lower prior attainment, though It should be noted that the effects for different types of pupils are not always significantly different from one another.
- The impact of the universal entitlement pilot on the take-up of school meals amongst primary school pupils was generally large, positive and significant. Most pupils in the universal pilot areas took up the offer of free school meals. Around nine in ten primary school pupils were taking at least one school meal per week by the end of the pilot compared with around six in ten similar pupils in a set of similar comparison areas.
- Take-up of school meals increased for pupils who were not eligible (that is, entitled and registered) for free school meals before the pilot was introduced, but it also increased among pupils who were already eligible for free school meals.
- In the universal pilot areas, the increased take-up of school meals led to a shift in the types of food that pupils ate at lunchtime, away from foods typically associated with packed lunches towards those associated with hot meals.
- Children in the universal pilot areas were less likely to report eating crisps at least once a day than children in comparison areas. This suggests that the reduction in crisp consumption at lunchtime did not lead children to eat crisps in the afternoon.
- The universal pilot also had a positive impact on parents’ perceptions of children’s willingness to try new food. Two-thirds of parents in these areas agreed that their child was willing to try new food, compared with 57 per cent in comparison areas. This finding supports evidence from case studies that parents felt that taking school meals in the pilot had encouraged their child to try a wider range of foods.
“The investment in the pilots is dwarfed by the spiralling costs of poor diet to the NHS and our national spend on efforts to close the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and their peers. What’s particularly interesting is that researchers say the impact on attainment seemed be strongest among those from lower income backgrounds, and those who weren’t doing so well at school before.
“Feedback from parents taking part in the Wolverhampton pilot has also been very positive. That both Wolverhampton and Newham councils decided to continue their schemes beyond the pilot stage and that Durham is now offering school meals at a reduced price – at a time when demand for limited funding is so fierce – is testament to the value they see in good school food to support children, families and schools.
“These results show how important it is to ensure every child living in poverty gets a free school meal and – at the very least – that we keep good school meals affordable for everyone else. It’s a reminder for policymakers, head teachers, local authorities and parents that investing in good food for children at school pays back a big return for their diet and education.”
The full report can be viewed at https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/DFE-RR227#downloadableparts