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Government to roll out free infant school meals

30/09/2013 Kelly
The government has announced it will roll out free school meals for all infant school pupils as of next year.

It is a policy that evidence suggests could help primary school teachers in their efforts to raise educational attainment.

Free school meals found to raise pupil performance

Calls for free school meals to be made universally available have grown louder over the past 12 months.

The Children's Society warned back in December 2012 that 72 per cent of teachers it had surveyed were seeing pupils going into school without packed lunches or money to pay for a school meal.

Furthermore, the findings of a Children's Food Trust poll of professionals working with children, published in March 2013, showed most respondents felt not getting enough to eat was harming pupils' ability to learn.

Meanwhile, the Department for Education commissioned Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, co-founders of the Leon restaurant chain, to look into how healthy eating habits could be encouraged among schoolchildren.

Their report, 'The School Food Plan', published in July, recommended the government embark on the phased rollout of free school meals to all primary pupils.

It highlighted that school meals cost parents £437 per child per year on average, yet around four in ten children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals under current criteria.

Universal free school meal pilot areas also experienced educational benefits, with pupils there two months ahead of their peers elsewhere on average, while between three and five per cent more children reached key stage two target levels in maths and English.

Nick Clegg: Free school meals mean "a stronger economy and fairer society"

Following on from this report, the deputy prime minister has this month announced that free school meals will be made available to all children in reception, year one and year two as of September 2014.

Nick Clegg said this scheme was being implemented among infant school pupils first because it was particularly important to teach healthy eating habits and boost educational attainment from a young age.

Mr Clegg asserted: "My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their class mates every day."

He added: "Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society."

Calls for scheme to go further

The announcement received a largely positive response, although there were some commentators who called for the government to be bolder on this initiative.

Dr Hilary Emery, chief executive at the National Children's Bureau, is happy politicians have recognised "the clear link between a good diet, children's health and performance in education".

She said free school meals would create "a healthy level playing field" for all pupils, encourage better eating habits later on in life, and would be welcomed by working families struggling with the cost of providing a balanced lunch for their children.

National Union of Teachers general secretary Christine Blower likewise stressed the potential benefits of free school meals, both in terms of improving pupils' concentration, behaviour and attainment, and in alleviating child poverty.

However, she warned that children "do not stop being hungry at seven years of age" and called for free school meals to be rolled out to all primary school children, as advocated in The School Food Plan, by 2015.

One of the first local authorities to introduce universal free school meals, including for junior school pupils, was Islington Council back in 2010, at an annual cost of £3 million.

The north London borough has a child poverty rate of around 40 per cent and also suffers from high levels of health inequality.

Writing for the Guardian, Islington Council's Joe Caluori and Richard Watts backed the government's decision to make free school meals available to all infant school pupils, but claimed it had not gone far enough.

They stressed the positive impact the policy has had in their own borough and said take-up of free school meals has risen to 85 per cent in all Islington schools, with 90 per cent "an achievable target".

Posted by Alan DouglasADNFCR-2164-ID-801643823-ADNFCR
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