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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  • Comment number 185.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    "There No such thing as hunger here"

    Ahh - well it's good we have people like you around to clarify that little point ! You can tell that to all the kids whose parents send them to school without breakfast and who may not get a proper evening meal !
    Hunger is an issue for some people in developed countries, just as starvation is an issue for some in 3rd world countries

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    @181 "I just don't want kids to suffer"

    I think most on here are with you on that one, pity I had to use the word 'most'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    #I don't think it's the quantity, it's the quality.#

    Yes food so good they can get fat on it is too good, too much of a good thing. Bad food has no calories in it, nothing to live on. Do not believe the rabbit food fanatics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    ting - People like me help pay for this country - I pay far more in tax than I'll ever receive in benefits. I just don't want kids to suffer, this ain't no 3rd world dictatorship. But yeah any way to stop poorer people over reproducing is fine by me - as long as the kids don't suffer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    two weeks ago while visiting a secondary school the school lunch that day was pizza and potato skins what rubbish food! and this school is over subscribed

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    178. P Uxbridge

    Last week children were fat today hungry! no one in UK are hungry?

    I don't think it's the quantity, it's the quality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    Last week children were fat today hungry! no one in UK are hungry? Today people on benefits can smoke and drink, i work and cannot smoke or drink. children whose parents are on benefits can buy designer clothes so maybe two much benefits people on benefits should not be given cash but given items IE food clothes bus fare housing costs only.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Twonk !! Give me patience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    instead of paying child benefit to parents, give those funds to nursery and schools instead to provide meals, then we know it does benefit the child

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    Great idea, all the research has found that children who have a proper meal learn better, this has to be supported. As others have said, this government wastes enough of our money supporting the rich bankers who don't pay their taxes. lets use our money to help our children, who one day will be creating the wealth of this country and supporting the old.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    They offer free breakfast at my daughter's school. She loves it as do her friends. It might only be a piece of toast and a very small glass of orange juice but they all set off 15 minutes early for it - that's how imporant it is for them

    And before any one moans, she's more than welcome to eat at home. There's always food in the cupboard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Am sick of everyone going on about Finland. If you want to use Scandinavian example to prove a point, try Denmark. No school dinners there and kids are healthier because parents know they have to produce a healthy lunchbox daily for the kids.

    I have seen it before where parents get a note if the contents are not deemed healthy enough on a regular basis.

    Seems a lot here just want to outsource!

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    It can't work without compulsion. China like. The only people getting different food are those currently taking pack lunches. Most of the reason they take their own is they do not like the school food. They wont eat it any way you pay for it. I never did in an era of no pack lunches I just skipped school meals almost every day. There No such thing as hunger here, many too fat!

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Everyone had free school meals and a bottle of milk when I was a child. Back then, education and what goes with it was supposed to come out of out tax and NI, so I don't know why it stopped because were all still paying

    The privatisation of School meals and the scrapping of school milk were two of Mrs Thatchers failed ideas. Yes they saved money, but at what price to our kids.

  • Comment number 170.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.


    Unfortunately, there ARE some people like that. My argument would be to remove paying them benefits directly in cash and give more in food vouchers etc. That way, no kids should suffer due to bad parenting. This scheme partially follows that principle which is one reason I like it. Cap benefits at 2 kids, thus removing the "cash incentive" to have more...

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Scrap child benefit entirely and use the money as follows:

    Age 0 - 3 NHS provide nappies, milk, food and clothing
    Age 4 - 5 State Nursery care + meals + clothing
    Age 6 - 18 State education + meals + clothing

    What the heck, it would easier just to give the baby to the state when it is born and then pick it up again once it reaches 18.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    @148.Mike from Brum
    Don't blame those who use the services provided to them, but those who abuse it for their own selfish greed ie politicians who make the rules (give a little back to some so they themselfs can pocket loads). If the economy was managed properly instead of for the greedy rich there wouldn't be most of these "benefits".

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    A proper hot meal in the middle of the day is so important. School meals were compulsary when I was at primary school. My children also have school meals and we chose a (private) school where this was compulsary. Packed lunches are not so nutritious and don't get the children into good eating habits. Everyone should have school meals, with those who can afford to paying.


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