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 105.

    Why not:

    remove child benefit for school age children.

    provide free school meals to all

    make up the shortfall to those currently on free meals elsewhere in the benefits system

    Absolutely shameful that we can't find a system where the free meals children aren't anonymous

    All children would eat a proper meal and the additional footfall would make proper kitchens in school viable again

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Question of attitude.

    Forget the term "free meals" or start using "free toilets", "free desk", "free maths lesson" etc...

    School meals should be mandatory, free and part of the school day.

    Manners and social skills can then be monitored and reported.

    It may also reduce truancy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    97. So, you object to kids getting free school meals because it might make them smarter, because if they are smart, they won't want to do essential manual labour.

    I cannot think of anything much more despicably fascistic than refusing to feed someone because you want them to be content doing work that you consider too menial for a smart person to bother with. Shame on you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Great idea but fund it from the existing child benefit payments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    I have been talking to a lot of people who think this is a great idea. Use part of the family allowance to feed children properly during term time, give it to parents during the holidays. It will also help parents to see that their children will eat real food when they are among a group.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Says a lot about some parents attitude to their children

    I'm sure for many it is a route to benefits & money for their personal comforts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    People keep saying AND the Goverment keep saying there is simple not the funds, Well there is billions probably trillions in pounds (taxes) goes in and out of this country everyday in fuel, road tax, council tax, food tax, energy tax, booze&fag tax list is endless! problem is its beening stashed and spent on the wrong things!MPS lavish pensions, wadges expenses etc money is constantly wasted here

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Something I would definitely like to see is the catering staff being allowed some say in cooking and preparing these meals, rather than letting some private company assemble the bare minimum from frozen food. If this is worth doing it's worth doing well.

    Surprised by the amount of opposition to this, tbh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    The entire concept is stupid and ignorant. It is a zero sum game. There will only be so many jobs for 'educated' people. We will still need armies of uneducated unaspiring workers who do very valuable worthwhile tasks for society. There is NO point in the objective behind this none at all. We need more fruit pickers than rocket scientists. This aims to need a degree to be a bin man No help at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    free school meals for all does sound like a good idea. one problem with that, here in the valleys, the children on free school meals are the ones who have the smallest portions and are not allowed seconds. they are always the ones leaving school hungry.
    so does thing mean that now all children will get less food?
    and who's going to pay for it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    As somebody who had to present his "starver voucher" when going into the school dinner hall, amid the sniggers and the whispers, I support this idea. It's not only improved nutrition that will provide academic benefits; removing the stigma that's still attached to entitlement to free school meals will also go a very long way to achieving this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    81.Peter Young
    "Why should part of my tax pay to feed other peoples children"

    A valid argument in some ways, but tax is supposed to be used for the greater good and I think this qualifies...

    If those kids fell behind at school due to poor concentration, some ultimately ending up in prison, you'd end up spending a lot more of your tax subsidising them.
    Which outcome do you prefer ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.


    ""A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "... it is not viable to continue the universal pilots in the current financial climate."
    OMG the prospect of having an educated working class scares the Gov't! They might ask questions and vote intelligently in future.""

    Yeah, of course that's the reason! Nothing to do with the enormous (and growing) debt mountain, and deficit, then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Absolute nannying garbage. Grow up to the real world situation, the State can not continue this ludicrous attitude of giving giving away all the time to pretend to deal with utterly irrelevant issues. An experiment from a bygone age of fake prosperity.
    Strange how so many less well off nations do so much better, as they expect more of their children and they work harder. We blame the food!

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Great idea and, to pay for it, simply cut some/all of the Child Benefit as soon as the child starts school.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    As anyone who regularly posts on here will be aware, I tend to be mostly left of centre in my views. I am being marked down for my post, which is fair enough but I want to explain. Labour lost the last election for a number of reasons, not least of all for throwing our taxes at dubious causes and I beleive that free school meals for all falls into the waste of my taxes category

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    All schools SHOULD provide free nutritious meals and MILK for children! I like to see some of the expensive tax we pay go where its suppose to go but lets face it most of our tax ends up where it shouldnt be in pensions and spending funds for first class travel, refurbishments of councle bulidings etc (with no expense spared) for over paid buming around councle workers! what a joke!

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    @81.Peter Young

    It was 15p when I was at school and that was for a decent helping (alright I hated the tapioca and semolina). The problem is now that the bosses are taking taking taking and not providing a decent service and the state is having to step in. But rather than set minimum standards it prefers to prop up bosses saleries!

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    75. I've never understood how privatisation was supposed to work. Supply and demand works well in the high street, people using a vital public service are rarely in a position to "vote with their feet". So it falls to the contractor to choose the best service provider, and if one of those companies happens to be a good friend of his from Posh School... well, you get the picture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Ask any teacher - those students who have had a 'proper lunch' are always more focussed in the afternoon than those who have not.


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