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Primary Education News
News Free school dinners all round, regardless of income
Amid concerns that more children are going hungry, a new campaign aims to persuade politicians to offer free meals to all primary pupils
When Anne Stowell started as headteacher at Townsend primary school in south-east London she became concerned about what some children were bringing in for lunch: "In some cases it was just a packet of crisps or a piece of bread and butter. One child was bringing nothing – we realised the other children were giving her food."
It was a similar story at Surrey Square primary, also in the London borough of Southwark. "A couple of children brought a packet of biscuits," says the school business manager, Kelly Rowles. "One would eat half, then give the other half to their brother. It was cheaper for their mum than to give them a sandwich and a drink."
The introduction of universal free school meals for primary children in Southwark – piloted with a small group of schools in early 2011 and phased in over a three-year period – has changed that. The majority of children now have school meals. Previously it was about half at Townsend, and just 30% at Surrey Square. And staff report better behaviour, concentration levels and attainment in pupils. "Having to sit and try and learn when all you can think about is how hungry you are must be really hard," says Rowles. "Our children are a lot happier and they're not hungry any more."
Southwark is not the first London borough to invest in free lunches for children. Both Islington and Newham now offer universal primary free meals and Tower Hamlets has just introduced them for its reception and year 1 students.
Now, a group of campaigners, led by Islington councillor Richard Watts, London Assembly member Fiona Twycross and the president of the GMB union, Mary Turner, is calling for universal free school meals to be included in all local authority manifestos for the next year and the Labour manifesto for 2015. Their campaign, due to be launched at a fringe event at the Labour party conference later this month, has the backing of Sharon Hodgson, shadow minister for education; Unison; the Socialist Health Association and a number of children's charities.
The campaign follows a government-commissioned review of school food carried out by the founders of the Leon restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. The School Food Plan, published in July, highlighted the poor nutritional quality of many packed lunches, and low uptake of school meals (just 43%), and called for the introduction of universal free school meals in primary schools.
This is not a new initiative for Labour: following successful pilots in Hull, Durham and Newham – where an evaluation by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and National Centre for Social Research found the introduction of free school meals led to significant improvements in the attainment of children from low-income backgrounds – in early 2010, the then Labour children's secretary, Ed Balls, announced seven more pilots in areas such as Nottingham, Bradford and Medway – all cancelled when the coalition government came to power.
As well as being good for learning and health (just 1% of packed lunches meet basic dietary needs, according to a 2010 Leeds University study), universal free school meals would help families on low incomes financially. The cost of school meals, around £500 a year per child, on average, can make a real difference, says Watts.
But research from the Children's Society published earlier this year found that more than 60% of children living in poverty were either ineligible or failing to claim free school meals. "We are increasingly hearing of families on the breadline, who are not officially in poverty, but are struggling to cope," says Watts.
Universal free meals would also help tackle the problem of getting families who are entitled to, to take them. Low take-up of free meals means schools miss out on pupil premium funding, which gives schools extra cash to spend on children from poorer backgrounds, as this is allocated on the basis of how many children are claiming free meals. A DfE report published last year estimated that about 200,000 pupils are entitled to, but are not claiming, a free meal. A further 200,000 register but don't actually have school dinners. Despite most schools now using a cashless system, where dinner money is paid in advance by parents (or by the local authority), for some families, there is still a stigma attached to "free school dinners".
Prior to the introduction of universal free meals in Southwark, says Stowell, many were simply defeated by paperwork. "You'd have to get a form, fill it in, bring it into school, get it checked, take it back to the local authority, get it stamped … and still you wouldn't be sure if you were entitled to free school meals because the eligibility rules were so confusing. There are 23 languages spoken at our school and some of our parents can't read or write."
Her school also battled with dinner money arrears, which often ran into hundreds of pounds. "There was usually a reason, like someone's mum was in hospital and they had to spend the money on fares to visit them," says Stowell.
Brian Bench, head of Hungerford school in Islington, experienced similar problems. "We weren't supposed to let [the arrears] run over £5 per child, but can you really let a child go hungry because their parents haven't paid? We've known families to move children to a different school just to avoid paying – a big upheaval for a child, all for the sake of £50 dinner money."
Now that Islington has free meals for all, every family has to apply, regardless of their financial status, which has proved a great social leveller. "Instead of the form you fill in to get free school meals, it's the form you fill in to have dinner," says Bench.
But not everyone is happy about the changes. Bench says Islington council "took a bit of stick" at first about some wealthy families, who could easily afford to pay, getting a financial boost. Bench believes the "benefits to the lower end" far outweigh the bonus to others, and Stowell agrees: "All children deserve a healthy meal and just because they come from a wealthy home doesn't mean they get that. It's a social responsibility Southwark has put in place."
Watts estimates the cost of universal free school meals for all primary children in England at about £1bn, which, she says, represents just 1% of the DfE's current budget, plus 0.4% of the Department of Health's budget – "far less than the government is spending on the academies conversion programme or NHS reorganisation," says Watts. The food and farming charity Sustain, which has also called for universal free meals, has suggested this could be funded by a tax on sugary drinks.
While this is a Labour initiative, the campaign group is hoping to attract cross-party consensus. "This could demonstrate that, occasionally, politicians can think longer term, and, if you look at future health savings, the benefits of people having better health and better results at school, [the cost] becomes quite minimal compared with the saving," says Twycross.
The children's charities 4in10 and Child Poverty Action Group are also launching a campaign this week to provide a free school meal for every child in London. But while Michael Gove has said he supports the idea, he has made it clear there is no money to fund this.
A DfE spokesperson said take-up of free meals had increased by 80,000 between 2010 and 2013. "We will continue to provide free school meals to those pupils who need them most."
'The pupils who benefited most were those who were doing the worst'
After four years of seeing almost all her 210 pupils eat a free school lunch every day, Theresa Aanonson is an evangelist for what she says are the policy's many benefits. "Children are more attentive and less lethargic in the afternoons, behaviour is much improved and standards are going up because they are concentrating more," says the headteacher of St Luke's primary school in the east London borough of Newham. Absence is down, too. Attendance has risen from 94% in 2009, when Newham became one of the Ed Balls-endorsed pilot areas for free lunches for primary pupils, to 97%. "There's less illness now. And there's less obesity." And, Aanonson adds, though with a note of caution: "I've not seen as many pupils with shoes that are falling apart since 2009."
That is anecdotal but suggests that parents in Newham, one of Britain's poorest boroughs, are spending wisely the £500-a-year the policy means they save for each five- to 11-year-old child they have. If so, Newham's mayor, Sir Robin Wales, sees it as one of many justifications for the council continuing to fund the free meals when Whitehall cash for the pilot ended in 2011. It backs its belief in the policy to the tune of £4.7m a year: not a small sum for an authority that has seen its income shrink under the coalition.
"This policy primarily helps people who are working, but are on low incomes – the working poor. £500 per child is a lot of money, especially in a place like Newham," says Sir Robin. "It's a form of income redistribution. It doesn't take people out of poverty but it relieves it."
He points proudly to the conclusions of the Department for Education-funded assessment of the pilots in Newham and Durham: not just that, compared to similar pupils in areas that did not have free lunches, pupils in both places "made between four and eight weeks' more progress over the two-year pilot period than pupils in other areas at key stages 1 and 2", but also that, as he puts it, "the pupils who benefited most were those who were doing the worst and who came from poorer backgrounds".
Free meals can provoke resentment among the majority of parents who pay for their child's meal or give them a packed lunch, some of whom feel they are subsidising an unfair perk. Ensuring that every primary pupil in England gets a free lunch, irrespective of their location or background, would solve that problem, the head believes.
"It's been a struggle sometimes to get parents to accept free school meals", says Aanonson. While some St Luke's parents feed their child healthily, others cook little and give their child doughnuts, chips and trips to McDonald's. Initiatives such as inviting parents to tasting sessions, holding theme days to highlight different cuisines and giving pupils a say in the dishes they are offered has gradually overcome resistance.
This week will see Aanonson yet again sell the benefits of free school lunches to parents, of whom as many as a third, she estimates, will be wary or sceptical. "There'll be 30 reception pupils arriving and on admission we will talk about school meals and how pupils can't just eat what they fancy and I'll explain how it impacts on pupils' wellbeing and progress. This is something we should all be fighting for."