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Primary Education News
News All primary pupils should have free school meals, report recommends
Michael Gove is understood to support plan for universal free school meals, starting in poorest areas
The government should introduce free school meals for all primary school pupils, starting with the most deprived areas, a report for the government on school nutrition has recommended.
Extending free school meals beyond the poorest pupils will cost around £1bn but the education secretary, Michael Gove, is understood to be supportive of the move in principle.
"We believe there is enough evidence, both from abroad and from English schools, to justify the partial introduction of universal free school meals," the report's authors, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, conclude.
The report says: "We understand that the considerable cost and the need to involve other departments make it a big ask. But we are pleased that the secretary of state agrees with us in principle and we would urge schools and councils to consider funding universal free school meals themselves."
The report notes that the cost would be "substantial", at an average of £1.76 for nearly 3 million children who do not receive free school meals now, adding up to £912m a year.
The plan – drawn up by Vincent and Dimbleby, the founders of the food company Leon – aims to tackle the poor public image of school meals and recommends that packed lunches be banned.
"Many parents mistakenly imagine that a packed lunch is the healthiest option. In fact, it is far easier to get the necessary nutrients into a cooked meal – even one of mediocre quality. Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food," the authors write.
The report also recommends that nutritional standards be introduced for all schools – at present they do not apply to academies and free schools.
"We have worked with the Medical Research Council and our own expert panel to develop a set of simpler food standards, which we believe will be easier to implement and enforce. If the new standards are agreed to be effective from a practical and nutritional standpoint, the secretary of state has agreed to make them mandatory across all types of school," the authors write.
At present, the majority of pupils – 57% – take a packed lunch or buy food outside school. Currently school meals cost £140m in school subsidies and their provision in England will only break even if average take-up rises above 50%.
Alongside the meals plan, the Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is to announce that "behaviour and culture in the dining hall" and the way schools promote healthy lifestyles will be considered during inspections.
Ofsted will consider how lunchtime and the dining space contribute to good behaviour and the culture in the schools. Inspectors will be told to spend time in lunch halls during their visits.
"We expect this to have a significant impact, because we know that headteachers and their teams often read Ofsted guidance as a way of maintaining readiness to be inspected," the report says.
The government has agreed to measure progress nationally by food quality, take-up of free school meals, morale of the catering staff, the number of children able to "cook savoury dishes" and the number of schools winning awards for their food.
The report's authors say they visited and ate at 50 schools around the country while preparing their report.
Chef Jamie Oliver, who started a national debate around school meals centring on Turkey Twizzlers, is said to support the latest report and will take part in publicising its findings.
The report suggests a range of measures for headteachers to use to increase take-up of school meals. Children could be barred from leaving school premises at break time, preventing them from buying unhealthy food, such as takeaways. But schools should also make their meals more exciting and ensure unhealthy snacks are not served during mid-morning breaks.
The plan also recommends subsidising school lunches for children in the first term of primary and secondary school or providing discounts for parents with several children.
It suggests introducing cashless payments to reduce long queues and prevent children who receive free school meals from being stigmatised. Teachers are also urged to eat with pupils in the dining hall.
Cooking should be part of the curriculum until children are 14, and schools could also offer lessons to parents and their children after school.
The plans include £11.8m from the Department for Education to help increase the take-up of meals, and £3.15m to provide healthy breakfasts for children who arrive at school hungry.
Two London boroughs will be chosen to take part in pilot schemes to demonstrate how better school food can improve health and educational performance.
The plan comes after Gove was accused by Oliver of imperilling children's health and educational prospects by letting the rapidly growing number of academies and free schools opt out of standards.
Almost a fifth of UK children are obese by the time they leave primary school. The situation is even worse in London, with almost a quarter of children starting primary school and over a third of year 6 children overweight or obese.