September 2, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
From today, every single child in the first three year of school will eligible for a free school meal. That means almost 2 million children at over 16,500 schools will get a free nutritious meal that should help improve their focus in the classroom at the most important stage of their education. A recent pilot study in Durham in North East England and Newham in East London found that children getting a free school meal were not only more likely to eat vegetables, but more importantly were found to be more than two months ahead of their peers in English and Maths.
It’s not come cheap: The government has invested £1billion over two years to meet the cost of the meals and over £150m to upgrade school canteen facilities. It came as a result of an independent investigation for the Department of Education that recommended the plan would lead to positive achievements in health, attainment and social cohesion, as well as helping families with the cost of living as it is reckoned it will save around £450 per child per year. Given there are about 700,000 children living in poverty but not eligible for free school meals, this could make a big difference.
During the pilot it was found that 2% of Key Stage 1 pupils getting a free school meal saw an improvement in their results in English and Maths and up to 5% saw improvement at Key Stage 2, which makes it more effective than the compulsory literacy hour brought in 1998. Most importantly, the improvements were more marked amongst children from less affluent families. Health benefits included a 23% increase in children eating vegetables at lunch and an 18% drop in crisps. It was also found that only 1% of packed lunches, often believed to be more healthy, meet the nutritional standards of school food.
Possibly even more importantly, some pupils eligible for free school meals beforehand would not claim it due to fears of bullying, teasing or stigma. This way, all children can eat together, because there would be little reason for what happened before, which was that some children ate packed lunches separately. Given children eating a proper meal are more likely to concentrate better, improving behaviour in the classroom, everybody benefits.
There were, and are, arguments against it. In particular, I hope that schools can make sure they are still able to identify pupils who qualify them for the pupil premium (a sum of money schools receive when a pupil from a disadvantaged background, which usually meant applying for free school meals) and so receive that money. But I am in general in favour of the policy, because overall, the benefits could be huge. So I wish it luck.