The evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, for free school meals

Posted by Paul Aagaard · 4 min read · 6 comments

The UFSM policy can be a success if headteachers prioritise lunchtime and recognise that school food provision can help improve their performance.

There are still concerns about the universal free school meal policy. Does spending £750 million on school meals really represent value for money? Wouldn’t it be better to just support disadvantaged children rather than offering it to everyone? What about the capacity issues in the dining room and the kitchen? Does it improve productivity?

Here are a series of evidence-based answers to address these all important questions based on the universal free school meal (UFSM) pilot, the School Food Plan and our own work on improving lunchtime provision over the last ten years.

Is the improvement in attainment good enough?

Quoting directly from the DfE’s impact report into the UFSM pilot (PDF, 1.8 MB), blogger Andy Jolley pointed out this week that: “There was no significant effect on the standardised average point score for the population as a whole in [Durham]”. But the report explains that “impact is significant and large in magnitude for the group of pupils who are predicted to be newly entitled to free school meals”. This improved the standard average point score by 0.137, which is equivalent to around two months progress. So, here is some evidence to suggest that extending free school meals to children who are not currently eligible can significantly improve their academic performance.

Jolley also pointed out that the pilot had no impact on the highest achieving children. But the report makes it clear that “this is not surprising, given that almost all these pupils would have reached the expected level in the absence of the pilot”. More importantly, lower-achieving children did increase the likelihood of reaching expected levels in maths and reading by 5.3% and 4.4% respectively.

Is universal free school meals value for money?

When you compare UFSM with, say, Jamie Oliver’s ‘Feed Me Better’ campaign it doesn’t look as if it’s value for money. Jamie’s campaign was five times cheaper and had a similar impact on attainment.

So is it right to spend so much money on free school meals? Looking at it from a pounds, shilling and pence perspective, it isn’t. But surely there are other essential criteria to consider when assessing whether an intervention is value for money or not? Attainment was greater amongst children from less affluent families in the UFSM pilot. And that means it will have an impact on educational inequalities. As the School Food Plan highlights, there are “hidden benefits, too”. It goes on to say that “Many teachers told us that the UFSM project had helped to foster a sense of cohesion within their school. ‘We don’t charge richer parents separately for lessons, or books, or drama,’ said one teacher in Islington. ‘Why is it acceptable to charge for the food?’”.

Is a blanket policy the most effective way to support our children?

We know from the UFSM pilot that extending entitlement has no impact on attainment and diet but it does when offered to everyone. A blanket policy, therefore, is the only way to make a positive impact on attainment as well as all the other important strategic issues mentioned earlier.

What about capacity?

Capacity issues in the dining room will be solvable for the majority of schools. In his article for the Guardian last week, Henry Dimbleby, co-author of the School Food Plan, spoke with Alison Young, who managed the UFSM pilot in Durham. She told him that “every school we have visited – in the pilot areas and elsewhere – that has significantly increased the number of children eating in a small area has done it by staggering lunchtimes”. If this isn’t enough then look to see whether school meals could be served in different parts of the school. In one large Brighton infant school I worked with we extended provision from the canteen to the school hall. This not only helped solve the capacity problem, it transformed the school day. The deputy headteacher said she used to spend all her lunchtime in the canteen trying to help and support children in a very noisy, chaotic and rushed environment. “I can now attend meetings at lunchtime or go off site for the first time in 20 years,” she said. And a reception teacher commenting on the lunchtime changes said “It’s an experience I would like for my own child”.

There is government funding available to build new kitchens or extend them where necessary. But will £150 million be enough? Oxfordshire County Council don’t think so, claiming there will be a £9 million shortfall based on the amount of money they have been awarded. So does this mean the policy will fail and our children won’t get a hot meal? No it won’t, but only if headteachers prioritise lunchtime and recognise that school food provision can help improve their performance. They can then justify spending important senior leadership time on coming up with some sustainable practical solutions to their capacity issues. If the schools haven’t got a kitchen, and there isn’t enough money to pay for one, then why not try and get support from the local community? One school, referred to in a comment on the aforementioned Guardian article, has employed the local pub to cook healthy meals which teachers and children serve. “It’s still in a pilot stage but uptake is 95%”. And for those who do have a kitchen but still face capacity issues what about, as Barons Court Primary School have done, invite volunteers to help. They told the School Food Plan that “One of the mothers makes bread, and there is a governor who peels the potatoes on roast day”.

What impact will the policy have on productivity?

Improvements in productivity was one outcome from the UFSM pilot but it’s unclear, as stated in the report, why this is – especially as the intervention had no impact on absence rates. We believe from our ten years work on making lunchtimes better that productivity improvements come from children being ready for afternoon lessons so learning outcomes are not compromised, reducing lunchtime incidents and upskilling Midday Supervisors. In one school we worked in bullying was reduced by 75% and the recruitment and retention of Midday Supervisors significantly improved.

If we all agree it’s a good idea that our infant children get a hot and healthy lunch and we know it improves their attainment and their wellbeing, then schools should welcome this policy and spend time creating a lunchtime system that works for everyone.

Still to come 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.