Viewpoints: Free school meals for infants

School dinner Dora Dixon Fyle shares a school lunch with pupils

Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has said all infants at schools in England will get free school lunches from next September.

The change - for children in reception, Year 1 and Year 2 - could save parents about £400 a year per child, the government says. The BBC News website has gathered a range of viewpoints.

Labour councillor Dora Dixon Fyle, Southwark, London, where free school meals have been piloted

The main response we have got from our parents was, "When are you going to offer them to all children?"

Start Quote

It's not just health, it's the social interaction of sitting at the table”

End Quote Dora Dixon Fyle Cabinet member for children's services, Southwark

Beforehand, the kids were bringing in crisps and bread and butter and not really eating healthy foods. And now going round all the schools the children are not only eating vegetables but some of them are even growing them.

In one of our schools in Nunhead they have got a big outdoor oven, which is amazing.

The meals are culturally sensitive and I'm told everyone is taking it up - even the teachers are taking part. It's not just health, it's the social interaction of sitting at the table.

There's nothing more uplifting than having a table of children from different social backgrounds all sitting around the table together - being told how to use their knives and forks properly.

The teachers tell us that in the afternoon the children's concentration level is much better. When the kids were coming to school with crisps and fizzy drinks they used to get a bit hyper, now their behaviour is much better.

Matthew Sinclair, chief executive, the TaxPayers' Alliance

There is no such thing as free lunch, especially one doled out by a politician. The pilot of this scheme didn't improve pupil health and there are better ways to address child nutrition than yet another universal benefit.

This is a party conference gimmick from politicians who love to wade in and pretend they are doing something about the pressure on the finances of struggling families by promising subsidies paid for with other people's money.

This announcement means taxing those on low and middle incomes to pay for hand-outs to affluent families. It's incredible to see it proposed by Nick Clegg, who was, until very recently, rightly arguing against universal benefits for wealthy households.

If politicians really want to tackle the cost of living, they should scrap the range of regulations that make everything from energy bills to the weekly shop more expensive and cut taxes to leave more money in people's pockets.

Vicky and Jo, working mothers at Kinderland play centre in Hull

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I think it'll help a lot of parents out”

End Quote Vicky

Vicky: I think it's a good idea - I've got three children in school and at £2.10 a day it's a lot of money, so mine have packed lunch. My brother-in-law has two kids and they only stay for school dinner twice a week because it's too expensive.

When I heard it on the news this morning I thought it would be good for us. I think a lot of parents who struggle to pay for school dinners will be pleased, I think it'll help a lot of parents out.

Jo: My children have packed lunches because they're fussy eaters. If they wanted school dinners I would pay £2 for it. But it's good it's free.

It's a good idea and would encourage healthy eating. It would help child poverty too. It's got to help people.

We've got three kids and my husband has two jobs and I work here and we just get by on what we earn. I'm all for it because I just feel we're the people who're penalised.

Alison Garnham, chief executive, Child Poverty Action Group

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Alison Garnham

No child should be too hungry to learn”

End Quote Alison Garnham Child Poverty Action Group

Providing free school meals to all children actually improves help for children in poverty. More poor children in working families will now be eligible and fewer children will be put off by worries that they will be singled out as being poor because they have a free school meal.

Schools and teachers already make huge efforts to register those eligible for free school meals and reduce stigma but a move towards a universal system will significantly improve eligibility and take-up of free school meals by children in poverty.

Taking all things into consideration, the government's child poverty record threatens to be bleak, with over a million children being thrown into poverty by 2020. Today's welcome announcement will make things a little less bleak.

Providing free school meals for young primary school children will help put pounds in the pockets of parents struggling to pay for school lunches but it is also a necessary investment for the future that will pay off by improving child health and raising educational attainment. No child should be too hungry to learn.

Anne Bull, chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association

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Anne Bull

This is a huge step forward”

End Quote Anne Bull Chair of Local Caterers Association

We are absolutely delighted by the announcement that all infant school children will receive free school meals.

It also provides a huge boost for the school catering industry and will be very welcome news for school food providers. We hope that funds will be made available to ensure that all schools have the necessary facilities to provide hot nutritious meals to every pupil in England.

This is a huge step forward and will make a massive difference for children in terms of health, attainment and social mobility.

There have been multiple reports in recent weeks on the financial difficulties faced by families and the impact that this has had on children's diets.

This announcement will be a great relief to those across the country who are struggling to make ends meet, with initial estimates suggesting that families will save on average £400 per year per child.

Ryan Bourne, head of economic research at the Centre for Policy Studies

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Ryan Bourne

It's incomprehensible”

End Quote Ryan Bourne Centre for Policy Studies

With a deficit of around £120bn, pressures of an ageing population and a continued squeeze on budgets, it's incomprehensible that the coalition should choose to prioritise a new £600m scheme to subsidise so-called "free" school meals to all 5- to 7-year-olds.

This goes against what the coalition has been doing elsewhere in its reforms of the state, where it has ended universality of, for example, child benefit.

The main beneficiaries of this will be middle-class families who do not require, and in many cases do not want, a subsidy for their children's lunches.

It's also far from clear that this is the best way of spending £600m to improve outcomes. The pilot showed improvements in attainment, but didn't compare this outcome to spending elsewhere or even tax cuts. No causal link could be explained and no health benefits were identified.

This just further erodes the concept of family responsibility for looking after their children's diets, at a high price. These dinners are not of course free, and as yet we don't know whose taxes will be raised or where spending will be cut for this new universal entitlement.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

Start Quote

Ann Bull

We hope schools will be given the help and support they need to deliver”

End Quote Russell Hobby NAHT general secretary

We welcome this announcement and we are sure it will benefit pupils, parents and schools. School leaders and teachers know the benefits to children's learning and development which come from good nutrition, and schemes such as this are good investments for the future.

An initiative such as this will also help remove the stigma surrounding free school meals and this will help not only some of the poorest families in society but also parents struggling to provide decent lunches.

However, it is essential schools have the capacity, kitchen facilities and staff to provide healthy and nutritious meals to all pupils on a daily basis. We hope schools will be given the help and support they need to deliver such an ambitious and well-meaning project within a relatively tight timeframe, particularly at schools which may need adaptations and equipment to accommodate a meal service.

Nevertheless, free school meals for all infant-age children is a bold idea and if properly rolled out we are sure it will be of enormous benefit to schools, parents and pupils.

Update 19 September: This story has been expanded to include additional views from the TaxPayers' Alliance and the Centre for Policy Studies.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    If people wish to become parents they should provide ,
    My parents managed to pay for my school meals 55 years ago ,
    of course they did not have a flat screen ,TV Four wheel drive , PC,
    or holidays abroad .

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I guarantee 100% that this will be paid for by local council tax and not from central taxation, so the rich and famous living in Westminster will pay nothing and those of us who live in the suburbs will pay through the nose yet again. Then Cameron will blame Labour councils when Council Tax goes up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Anything which improves a child's diet has got to be good.

    Currently diets for children and for that matter adults is extremely poor !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    My son recently recived his 1st ever menu. If he had eaten from it this week he would have had 3 x roast dinners, pizza & wedges and Fish fingers chips and baked beans. Pudding are sponge and custard or fruit. How is that more healthy than the packed lunch I gave him? How do I give the whole family a balenced diet when 1 is eating independantly? Teach good cooking instead, give a man a fish.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Excellent idea - but am I the only parent who thinks that children should eat properly at school - main course on one plate and desert on another? I really object to the 'prison' style trays of food they are given.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I am an only child from a relatively poor working class background.. I asked my mum why. She said that they could only afford one so only had me. I never went hungry.But no car, no phone, no mobile phone, no flat screen TV, no play station games etc, but food on the table.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    OK so what do you do if you have a coeliac child? or one with a nut allergy? or a lactose allergy? These can both be real problems when it comes to cooking for children, especially when you are advised to cook for the nut-allergic one in their own pans and with separate utensils which are NEVER mixed with the others? The general idea is good, it's the practical application I doubt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    In theory great, but my local school invites parents to join the children for Mothers/Fathers day meals, and quite frenkly after going myself I allowed my children to decide for themselves if they wanted school dinners or a packed lunch as I could no longer force them to eat school meals. My point is, it's alright offering free meals as long as they aren't the muck I saw.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    It is not free. It is paid for by someone. We do not need to subsidise children, the country has enough people. If you cannot afford children then don't have them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Surely it is a parents responsibility to feed their children? We have a welfare state that provides the basics so why give any free meals? I listened to a sob story on the radio today about a guy who had 6 kids and was struggling to feed them. Talk about a lack of personal responsibility!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I think it's a good idea. Lots of parents, and even more their kids, resent the stigma attached to getting free dinners so this will put everyone in the same boat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Education is possibly best received on a full stomach?

    The cost to the taxpayer is a problem, but maybe focused minds will mean improved long-term performance?

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Bottom line is that by limiting to the under 5s, it makes that group 'more important' than other age groups. For parent's it will be welcome but less so when they have suddenly got to find the additional £500 per child once they get to the age where it's ok for them to go hungry!

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    No such thing as free when it's supplied by the government, it's paid for by taxes. If you have kids, you feed them yourself, don't ask others to do it for you.
    If you can't afford that then don't have kids.
    BTW, I'm both a tax-payer and a parent.
    Clegg is an idiot, just because he sponges off the public - as do all politicians by definition - he thinks that's the way everyone can live

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Can anyone please tell me what parents are for these days!
    I thought one of their rolls in life was to provide for their children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Great idea, let's hope it gets extended to all school age children.

    The problem is that the quality is not there. I look at the school menu and on the face of it, it sounds healthy and nutritious. But if you actually eat the food, I found that the quality of the food is dire, you wouldn't feed a dog with some of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Does Nick really think this initiative is going to make him a more attractive polling proposition? Or is this just a last ditch attempt to avoid political oblivion. Either way, he's clutching at straws.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I wish the media would stop referring to these as 'free' school meals.

    I don't have kids, and never will, but it's my taxes that will be paying for little Johnny's carrot sticks and hummus.

    They are not free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Times sure have changed. Parents used to make their children top priority for things like feeding and clothing. Now they are just a commodity like the car, the sky box, the 42" plasma.
    Life is hard but of course now its what can I claim for?

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    £600m !! Think how many people could pay no tax for their lifetime just to fund one year's meals. If you are a low earner why should you pay for the food for a high earner's children.


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