Education & Family

Viewpoints: Free school meals for infants

School dinner
Image caption 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?"

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

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

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

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

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

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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