How to avoid the free school meal policy turning into a dog’s dinner

Posted by Paul Aagaard · 4 min read · 4 comments

Happy lunchtimes mean children come back into class ready to learn.

Last month the Guardian reported on the preparations schools are making for September’s introduction of free school meals for all infants. Under the headline “Is Nick Clegg’s free school meals idea turning into a dog’s dinner?”, headteachers from several schools were asked about their readiness for the policy. Rather than recognising this as a real opportunity to improve their school performance, the headteachers claimed that the policy is “impractical”, that it will create staffing and supervision problems and that it’s “a bizarre thing to be doing”.

So what’s bizarre exactly about feeding our children a hot nutritious meal which has proven educational benefits as well as health outcomes, as highlighted in the recent School Food Plan written for the Department of Education by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent?

What’s bizarre is the poor state of lunchtime provision in many schools. Here is the recipe for disaster that will make implementing the free school meal (FSM) policy so difficult.

1. Shortening lunchtimes

According to recent Children’s Food Trust research, nearly a quarter (23%) of teachers across all schools had seen lunchtime get shorter at their school in the last few years. Whilst this increases learning minutes, it’s a short-sighted strategy that exacerbates any capacity issues and doesn’t give children enough time to eat their dinner.

As a result, children don’t go back into class ready for learning, preferring instead to talk about unresolved lunchtime incidents which compromise learning outcomes. One Ofsted inspector I spoke to recognises that this is a real problem: “One of the main advantages of happy lunchtimes is that children come back into class ready to learn. In schools that are not in control of lunchtimes, endless learning time can be lost sorting out issues after lunch”. Schools will need to give serious consideration to these issues now Ofsted inspections include observing how lunchtime and the dining hall contribute to good behaviour as well as trying to cope with the new FSM policy.

2. Lunchtime systems designed for adults

So many schools I visit operate a chaotic lunch service. Long queues, children feeling rushed and not being able to sit with their friends are typical and are the results of a system designed to get children into and out of the dining hall as quickly as possible. As one headteacher explained, “I feel the children are herded in like cattle and herded out again”. The School Food Plan recognises that this is a problem: “In those schools we visited that were struggling, the top-down ethos of institutionalised service still prevailed. The job of the canteen was to feed children, not to entice them to eat”. This is a system designed for adults which ensures, for example, that the hall is cleaned and ready for PE lessons in the afternoon and that kitchen staff finish on time. Ultimately the children are the customers so concentrating on what they care about is vitally important. As a recent Children’s Food Trust blog explains, children really care more about the look and feel of the dining room than what they eat: “You can have the most fabulous, nutritious and tasty menu in the world but if the kids can’t sit and enjoy their meal in a pleasant space, your efforts aren’t going to reach their full potential”. Systems therefore that aren’t designed for children and don’t address these issues will struggle with the FSM policy.

3. Lunchtime isn’t a priority

Having been a school governor for over 3 years I am aware that headteachers will prioritise on the basis of evidence and impact to support Ofsted judgements. Lunchtime doesn’t get prioritised because healthy eating and increased school meal uptake don’t give them the evidence and impact they are looking for. However, once they know for example that a better lunchtime system can improve behaviour and safety then they are much more likely to make it a priority. In one school I worked in we reduced bullying by 75% and improved children’s readiness for afternoon lessons.

Lessons from the past

So it’s not the policy that’s turning into a dogs dinner, it’s the poor lunchtime provision in some schools that’s already a dog's dinner. In fact the government have a good track record when it comes to introducing school food policies.

Ten years ago I helped the Department of Health launch the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme (SFVS) into the South East region. Just like the new FSM policy this was a blanket policy that offered every child aged 4–6 a free piece of fruit or a vegetable every day. And just like the FSM policy some schools complained about its implementation. In one local authority take up only reached 75% of all eligible schools in the first year – one of the worst take-up rates in England. Schools would ask us: “Who is going to clear up hundreds of banana skins off our playgrounds?” and “Where are we going to store all this produce and who is going to wash all the fruit and vegetables?”. Once we had made provision for a refuse vehicle to collect waste produce from large schools, we funded some large plastic garden boxes to be sited in the playground for storing fruit and vegetables and helped arrange for parent volunteers to come into wash produce, the take-up rate increased shortly afterwards to 99%. The SFVS is a great example of a blanket policy being successfully implemented with a little help from a team of professional co-ordinators.

Just like the SFVS the new FSM policy will need lots of professional support too, which in this case will be about dealing with capacity issues in both the kitchen and the dining hall. And provision has been made for this. The Department of Education are currently inviting organisations to bid for almost £10 million to support school readiness for FSM. That means every eligible school will have access to a professional direct support service in 2014 and 2015 specifically tailored to the needs of all schools that require support. Schools will either self-refer, be referred by a third party (e.g. their Local Authority), or targeted because they are in a category known to face the greatest challenge in delivering the policy. And this is a matched funded bid, so schools will be benefiting from a total of almost £20 million in addition to £150 million which has been made available for new kitchen facilities.

So the FSM policy can be a recipe for success if headteachers prioritise lunchtime and recognise that this is a real opportunity for them to improve their school performance.

Coming up in January: The list of ingredients you'll need to make the free school meals policy a recipe for success for your school.

Paul Aagaard

Paul is a social entrepreneur who is passionate about improving safety and behaviour in schools by transforming lunchtimes. Working in partnership with caterers and local authorities to develop lunchtime improvement programmes, he helps schools ensure that children want to eat better, eat together, engage in good conversation and be more active.