Free school meals for all 'boost results'

School canteen Children eating school dinners consume better food, the report said

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Offering free school meals to everyone can help close the gap between rich and poor pupils, a report suggests.

A study looking at the effects of extending free meals to all in two pilot areas of England suggests primary pupils advance by two months on average as a result.

Advances were most pronounced in pupils from poorer homes.

Researchers put the attainment boost down to improvements in pupils' productivity.

The study looked at the impact of extending entitlement to free school meals in three English local authority areas over a two-year period.

'Better food'

In two areas, Durham and Newham, meals were offered universally to pupils.

In a third, Wolverhampton, entitlement was extended to cover pupils in primary and secondary schools to a greater number of but not all pupils.

There was little change in either take-up of school meals or attainment on this partial expansion pilot.

But in the universal pilot, most pupils areas took up the option of taking the free meals.

The report suggested the nutritional content of school lunches was better than packed lunches. Better food has been linked previously with better behaviour.

Children were more likely to eat hot food, including vegetables and carbohydrates. They were also more likely to drink water rather than fizzy drinks.

'Levelling effect'

Researchers then compared the school results of children on the universal pilot with similar children in other areas.

They found an average increase in attainment of about two months for those in primary school.

And the impact was more pronounced for children from less affluent families and amongst those with lower prior attainment.

The study said school staff noticed a "levelling effect" in the quality of lunches eaten by pupils from different backgrounds.

The report said the increase in attainment "must arise as a result of improvements in productivity whilst at school".

The study said the universal approach cost the equivalent of around £220 per primary school pupil over two years.

It added that the universal entitlement pilot appeared to deliver better value for money "than some educational interventions".

'Not viable'

Children's Food Trust 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."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We are committed to ensuring that free school meals are available to those pupils who need them most, but it is not viable to continue the universal pilots in the current financial climate.

"It is right to focus schools' budgets on the government's priority of directly raising attainment for all children."

Sharon Hodgson, MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, said the evaluation showed the significant benefits from having universal access to nutritional and filling school meals.

" It provides real food for thought for a government which claims to want to boost attainment and increase social mobility, but which scrapped further pilot schemes within weeks of being elected.

"If they are serious about improving outcomes for all children, they need to seriously examine the positive impact that universal free school meals has had in Durham."

The Local Authority Caterers Association said healthy school meals not only improve concentration and attainment, but also have other wide-reaching benefits.

The research was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Bryson Purdon Social Research.

It comes after the education secretary Michael Gove ordered a review of school food, amid concerns that academies can opt out of strict nutritional guidelines introduced to raise standards in school kitchens.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Every child deserves the best and if eating properly helps improve results then it should be offered equally to everyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    There is an old saying along the lines of "You can tell a nation's investment in its future by its investment in its children". Here is a simple and well evidenced strategy to help improve the lives of all children and yet there are still people who would knock it. Expensive? not really given the money we choose to invest in one-off events like the Olympics or pointless weapons like Trident.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Doesn't make kids brighter but helps them concentrate and misbehave less in class so kids learn more and teachers have an easier life.
    We don't expect everything to be free but as we pay taxes, there are some basic things that we expect those taxes to provide. As the article has noted, results have improved and if other countries can do it, we can too.
    A price worth paying I think

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I had free school meals and milk but i'm not sure i ended up brighter seems a bizarre concept to me. Why does everyone expect everything to be free? Healthy eating should start at home and school lunches whether packed by mommy or provided at school should be healthy, so simple and duck could work that out! Teach kids to eat properly dont expect the state to do your job for you parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    OK have cafeterias in schools but all parents should pay for their children to be fed. Families with whatever number of kids already get numerous benefits from the state.Why should part of my tax pay to feed other peoples children.The Government already pays for far too many things result we have become a nation of pathetic spineless no-hopers waiting for even more handouts

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    71. "Perhaps it is - in many cases - a matter of priorities."

    In some cases I would imagine it is. In other cases, time will be a more prohibitive factor that cost. It is not much more time-consuming (and definitely cheaper per head) for a team of caterers to prepare meals for 200+ kids from scratch than for 200 sets of parents to do so individually.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Anything which can be interpreted as an investment by the state in the educational well being of society has to be commended. Education is a right,not to be 'consumed' or marketed as the spurious concept of 'choice' for parents.So this initiative is to be commended. Who knows,with heads out of the sand or other anatomical parts, political 'masters' may eventually aspire to GCSEs in commonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    As results ONLY improved when all had free meals, not just the disadvantaged, I conclude that the packed lunches weren’t up to scratch. I guess this is due to parents bowing to child and time pressures to fill boxes with crisps and choc bars, not lack of money.

    Seems a cheap and sensible investment in our future. Find the money, Cameron. More worthwhile than most stuff you do!

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Oh, sorry, I wasn't disputing that. I was disputing what the previous poster had said. I agree that kids shouldn't be made to suffer for their parents' lack of fiscal responsibility. I just don't think it's an argument worth engaging with, as most poor people are actually just scraping by, not raking it in through benefits as she seemed to believe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Great idea. Money has been frittered away on daft ideas - and this is a sound, practical proposition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    It's such a shame that over the last 30 years one generation decided to enrich themselfs at the expense of those following. Privatisation was supposed to bring better competition and cheaper prices, instead it brought cheap inferior products and greedy bosses giving less and taking more. Martha Payne highlighted it beautifully with her couple of peas and croquette.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    What bunch of idiots ever thought that we could do without ensuring all kids have healthy nutritious meals? Bring back the milk, too. It has already been shown that behavioural developmental disorders are linked to poor nutrition.
    Expensive? well consider the costs of NOT doing it.
    its a national disgrace that not ALL our kids are healthily fed. A fair start for all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I think free school meals for all children are a great idea. It gets rid of the stigma and bureaucracy of the current system and it treats everyone as equals. It would also provide employment in village communities, where it's sorely needed. As well as lunch I'd extend to breakfast. It could be paid for by phasing out family allowance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I say roll out this scheme at breakfast too. It wouldn't cost much to offer porridge, a piece of fruit and some milk to the kids. Look at the % of the prison population who have reading / writing difficulties. If you could nip that in the bud by putting a little bit of money in at an earlier stage, we'd all be winners...

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    `... help close the gap between rich and poor.´ Hmmm.
    I doubt if there are that many families who do not have enough money for nourishing food - it is cheaper than fast food. A friend of ours cooked for homeless and has a lot of experience of providing meat-and-two-veg.
    Perhaps it is - in many cases - a matter of priorities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    In today's society parents want the state to look after their children and when the children become older they want the state to look after their parents.

    The problem with being dependent on the state is that when the state runs out of money everyone ends up living a miserable life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    "Universal free school meals just means less money in the education budget for books, school trips, etc"

    Thing is, it almost certainly doesn't mean less money for those things. It may mean less money for schools to build flashy new facilities that look great to parents, but which the kids barely get any use out of. Maybe that doesn't happen any more, but it certainly did when I was at school!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    @66 TheBladesman

    No, not at all - don't know what gave you that idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Education is about the only part of govt expenditure that can be considered to be an investment. The funds that you put in will bring a positive return, unlike the benefits system. That being the case we should not begrudge anything that will enhance the performance of our investment. All school meals should be nutritious, palatable and free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.


    Oh no not the ridiculous requests for evidence again, how tedious. This is HYS, people are entitled to express their opinion.


    Are you saying that those who don't think school meals should be free for everyone are cold and unsympathetic?


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