NICK HUGHES assesses the five things we have learned about the hotly debated free school meals policy.
It’s just over a year since the coalition government rolled out its universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) programme whereby all government-funded schools must offer free school meals to every pupil in reception, year 1 and year 2.
The move was prompted by the publication of the government- commissioned School Food Plan, which recommended the introduction of free school meals for primary school children based partly on the results of pilots initiated under the previous Labour government which showed clear academic benefits for students who receive free school meals.
The policy is not without its critics, however, many of whom are Conservatives ideologically opposed to the idea of universal benefits. With schools well into the second year of implementation, here are five things we have learned about UIFSM to date:
1 Take-up is in line with projections
Despite a recent report in the Telegraph that take-up in some areas has been as low as 30% the overall picture is a positive one. Recent statistics published by the Department for Education (DfE) show take-up of free school meals among eligible pupils of more than 85%, representing about 1.6m children – up from approximately 300,000 who were receiving free school meals before entitlement was made universal and close to the 87% projected by the DfE. Carrieanne Bishop, the national chair of the Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA), describes the figure as “a massive achievement” but adds: “We must work hard to ensure that all children take advantage of the free, healthy food that is on offer to them.”
2 Funding remains a challenge
Questions over how cash-strapped schools would be able to fund free school meals dominated the debate after the policy was announced. “Any negativity we’ve come across is nearly always directed at the speed with which the policy was introduced and the need for more funding to make it work even harder for children,” says Jo McGarrigle, who leads part of the government-funded support service for schools run by the Children’s Food Trust and LACA.
Funding is based on a rate of £2.30 for each meal taken by eligible pupils based on an assumption that pupils will take 190 school meals in the course of a full academic year. Schools can also apply for capital funding to help pay for improvements to kitchen and dining facilities.
The government allocated £150m of capital funding to support the rollout of UIFSM in the 2014-15 financial year – and much of it went to schools lacking the infrastructure to prepare fresh meals. An extra £10m has been made available in 2015-16, £8.5m of which went to the 11 local authorities with the lowest take-up of school meals among their infant pupils.
McGarrigle says continued capital funding for improving school kitchens and dining spaces in all schools is essential. “We’ve campaigned for many years about this: if we want more and more children to choose the school meal experience, we need decent infrastructure and systems to make it happen.”
3 The support of headteachers is key
Gaining the support of headteachers, many of whom are already facing intense budgetary pressures, was always going to be critical to the policy’s success. After reports in the national press that the policy lacked support, the head of the School Food Plan, Myles Bremner, publicly stated his belief that the vast majority of headteachers believe in the policy. Bremner’s assertion is supported by the National Association of Head Teachers, whose general secretary, Russell Hobby, says: “After all the money and time invested, the policy must stay. It was a challenge for school leaders to bring this about, in particular for small schools and those without catering facilities on site. But these challenges have been met.”
4 Government support is not guaranteed
UIFSM was driven by the Liberal Democrats and is deeply unpopular with many Conservative MPs. Recent media reports suggest that the chancellor, George Osborne, will withdraw government support for the policy in his autumn statement, despite a commitment in the Conservative election manifesto to the continued provision of UIFSM.
LACA says it is seeking clarity on the situation. The DfE itself stops short of reiterating support for the policy but in a statement says: “We believe that every child, regardless of their background, should have the same opportunities. That is at the heart of what we are doing with school food – no child should be hindered because they are not eating a nutritious meal at lunchtime.”
5 Evidence on the effect of UIFSM is needed
The government has committed to tackling childhood obesity and is due to publish a new strategy this year. Although previous pilots suggest that free school meals can deliver health benefits, foster a sense of cohesion within schools and avoid the them-and-us divisions of packed-lunch and school-lunch kids eating separately, quantitative data on these benefits is thin on the ground.
Favourable research – like the recent survey showing that 95% of parents with children in the scheme recognise the benefits – will not be enough to convince a chancellor reportedly itching to ditch the policy. Even staunch supporters admit that hard data is required.
“As the government shapes its child obesity strategy, now is the time to be measuring how this scheme is improving children’s nutrition during the school day, especially for children living in poverty for whom access to healthier foods is often more difficult,” says Linda Cregan, the chief executive of the Children’s Food Trust.