Free school meals scheme too rigid, says senior Tory MP

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A coalition plan to give free lunches to infant school children in England should have been thought through "more carefully", a senior MP has said.

Tory MP Graham Stuart - chair of the education select committee - said some schools will struggle to comply with it and should be given more "discretion".

The scheme - unveiled last year by Nick Clegg - is due to launch in September.

The deputy prime minister's spokesman said it had been "fully tested, well designed and properly funded".

But Mr Stuart told BBC Radio 4's The World at One head teachers should be given "greater discretion".

Start Quote

It does show the dangers of Nick Clegg pitching into education policy without being aware of the realities in schools”

End Quote Graham Stuart Education select committee chairman

"I think one of the first steps that needs to be taken is to soften the promise … and accept the reality of the built environment in some schools, the pressures they are under and trust head teachers to use the resource to best effect," said the MP.

All Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 children in state-funded schools in England will be entitled to free school meals under the scheme, which Mr Clegg says will save parents about £400 a year per child.

Launching the scheme at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, he said: "My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their class mates every day".

'Detrimental'

But it has come in for criticism from some head teachers.

Jim Holditch, head of Godinton Primary School, in Ashford in Kent, told BBC News: "I am honesty saying that I can't implement this without it having a detrimental effect on other areas of school life for the children here"

Jim Holditch, Head Teacher of Godinton Primary School with award winning school chef, Hazel Forrester in the Jolly Roger Cafe. Jim Holditch with chef Hazel Forrester in the Jolly Roger Cafe

Mr Holditch said his options are limited due to the size of his school's kitchen and school hall.

Lunch servings, which begin at 11.30am, would have to be brought forward to 11am, when the first three years become entitled to free meals, said Mr Holditch.

That would be "just too early" and would mean there would not be time to provide PE lessons to all children, he added.

The government says £150m is going to schools to expand their kitchens and dining facilities, where needed.

'Status quo'

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Every child deserves the best possible start in life, and at the same time we are doing all we can to help ease the pressure on household budgets”

End Quote

In addition, £22.5m is being given to small schools to help them extend or improve kitchen facilities and address "transitional costs". That is part of a total budget for the policy of £1bn.

Mr Holditch said he has been told by his local council that there will not be enough money to extend the school hall.

St Lawrence Primary School in West Sussex does not have a kitchen and the school hall is used for activities at lunchtime. All the children there eat packed lunches in their classrooms.

The school's head teacher, Paul Dyer, told The World at One: "The status quo here works extremely well and if it is working extremely well and the children are very fit, healthy and happy children and there isn't a huge demand for the meals, it seems irresponsible really to upset the apple cart."

Paul Dyer Paul Dyer says the status quo 'works extremely well'

He added: "I will do what is best in my view for the education of these children and if that means taking on the government, that means taking on the government."

The school is looking at its options - one could be to start off by purchasing cold lunches for the pupils.

The Department for Education said: "Our intention is that the legal requirement on schools will be to provide a meal that meets the School Food Standards. As far as possible we would want that to be a hot meal".

'Ease pressure'

Graham Stuart said the policy reflects what he described as "the danger" of the deputy prime minister becoming involved in education matters.

"It does show the dangers of Nick Clegg pitching into education policy without being aware of the realities in schools".

A spokesman for the Deputy Prime Minister told BBC News: "This policy has been five years in the making.

"Pilots of universal free school meals run by the Department for Education and Department of Health started in 2009 and ran for two years.

"Evaluation showed clear benefits for all in terms of educational attainment and healthy eating, but in particular for the poorest children. The plans are fully tested, well designed and properly funded.

"Every child deserves the best possible start in life, and at the same time we are doing all we can to help ease the pressure on household budgets."

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