Q&A: Free school meals for infants

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Infant children queue for lunch
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From this term all infants in English state schools will be entitled to free school meals

From this term, all infant pupils in England's schools will be entitled to a free hot meal at lunchtime every day.

So who will benefit from this policy, how did it come about and are schools ready?

What is changing?

All state-funded schools in England, including academies and free schools, will have a legal duty to offer free meals for all children in Reception to Year 2, under the Universal Infant Free School Meals policy.

Until now around 367,000 children in this age group whose parents are on benefits or earn less than £16,190 have been eligible for free school meals.

Under the new policy an extra 1.55m children will be entitled to a free hot meal every lunchtime, bringing the eligible total to more than 1.9m youngsters

The scheme is expected to save parents about £400 per year per child.

Schools are legally required to provide meals that comply with the government's School Food Standards which are intended to ensure children get the nutrition they need across the school day.

Do the meals have to be hot?

The guidelines to schools say the government expects that pupils will routinely be offered a hot meal option.

"Where schools are not in a position to offer hot options from September 2014, they should be working towards doing so as soon as possible."

What about packed lunches?

The government says schools should offer free school meals to all infant pupils but will not be expected to make take-up mandatory.

Image source, Thinkstock
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The introduction of free school meals for infants follows a government review of school food in England

Schools will still have the freedom to set their own policies on packed lunches, says the guidance.

Will all families opt in?

The government has budgeted for an 87% uptake of the lunches - but Schools Minister David Laws has told the BBC this might be lower to begin with as parents of more fussy eaters decide whether their children will eat them. Some may decide to continue to provide a packed lunch every day.

How did it come about?

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launched the plan at last autumn's Liberal Democrat conference.

Free school meals for all pupils up to age 11 were recommended in a review of school food for the government by the founders of the Leon restaurant chain.

They said packed lunches were nearly always less nutritious than cooked meals, adding that free lunches for all children would raise academic standards.

How is it funded?

The Department for Education has promised the meals will be fully funded by central government. It says this year it will pay a flat rate of £2.30 for each meal taken by newly eligible pupils.

The government is also spending £150m to improve kitchens and dining facilities.

In addition small schools will get £22.5m to extend or improve kitchen facilities.

Image source, Getty Images
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Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg announced the £1bn school meals policy late last year

Does the policy have support across the coalition?

In May the then education secretary Michael Gove and schools minister David Laws denied reports of a rift within the coalition over the policy.

In a joint article for The Times newspaper they said the plans had "cross-party support".

Earlier reports suggested senior officials at the Department for Education feared the money for upgrading kitchens was insufficient.

Leaked emails suggested officials believed school kitchen improvements would cost £50m more than the £150m allocated, with a knock-on effect on wider school budgets.

In March a former adviser to the education secretary called the idea "dumb" and a "bad gimmick". Dominic Cummings said it had not been properly thought through or costed and would cause chaos.

Schools minister David Laws countered that a serious amount of work, including pilots, had gone into the policy.

Is the funding sufficient?

In July a survey by BBC Radio 5's Drive programme asked all 152 councils in England about their budgets for implementing the policy.

Media caption,

School Reporters Jamie, Charlie, Samantha, Kingston, Tiffany and Julie look into the importance of eating healthily at school.

Of the 99 that replied, 34 said they did not have enough money for the scheme despite being told it was fully government-funded.

Some local authorities said they were having to raid their maintenance budgets while others were passing costs on to the schools themselves.

Essex County Council has reported a £3m shortfall while 190 schools in Leeds are being asked to help find half the cost of the shortfall in the city.

One Leeds head said he had been planning to spend the money on tablet computers for pupils but would not now be able to do so.

Will schools be ready?

In April a BBC Daily Politics investigation found more than 2,700 schools in England would not be ready to serve the free hot meals.

Freedom of Information figures obtained by the BBC suggested more than 1,700 schools had no kitchen at all. So their hot meals will have to be delivered by external caterers or cooked at nearby schools and transported.

Some may offer cold food such as sandwiches to begin with - though the guidelines say that schools should be working towards providing hot meals.

Some schools said they lacked big enough dining rooms so lunchtimes would have to be staggered.

Others said they used their halls for PE at lunchtime and the new meals policy would mean an end to these activities.

What is Mr Clegg's reaction?

Mr Clegg says that although some English primary schools may have "some difficulties" in providing the meals he insists that the scheme is "well-funded" and "well-researched".

Image source, PA
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Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has campaigned for healthier school meals

He has said pilots in Durham and Newham have shown the policy not only saves families money but has a dramatic educational impact, particularly on poorer children who are not receiving free school meals.

Mr Clegg also believes free school meals for all infant schoolchildren have a "very significant social impact because it gets children sharing lunch together during the middle of the school day".

What about Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Money is being provided for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to emulate the English scheme, but as education is a devolved issue, it is up to people running schools in each country to decide whether to spend the money on free lunches.

The Scottish government has decided to provide free school meals for all children in Primary One to Three from January 2015, following trials in five local authority areas.

In Wales all primary schoolchildren are entitled to a free school breakfast.

Should the policy be extended to all primary pupils?

A review of school food for the Department for Education recommended all primary pupils should get free school meals.

Co-author Henry Dimbleby has said he hopes Mr Clegg's announcement will "be the first step on the road to free school meals for everyone".

The National Union of Teachers also wants the policy to be extended to all primary pupils.

General secretary Christine Blower says children "do not stop being hungry at seven years of age".