Will Universal Free School Meals for everyone improve educational attainment?

Nick Clegg announced last month that from 2015, Free School Meals will be made available to all English children under 8 years old. Why is this policy being introduced, and what will it mean for children, parents and teachers?

Free School Meals (FSM) are currently offered to children who come from low-income families and who fulfil certain qualifying criteria.  The number of students receiving FSM is also widely used as an indicator of the wealth and intake of a school; Schools where a large number of students get FSM would most likely be in poorer areas.

Now the government has announced that from 2015, all English schoolchildren under the age of 8 will receive FSM. The aim is to ensure that every child receives a fresh, nutritious and filling lunchtime meal.

Many parents have expressed delight at the news. The policy is expected to save them about £400 a year, per child. Other people have expressed concern about how this could possibly be funded. It is thought that it will cost the government (or the taxpayer?) £600 million a year.

Yet the main reasons for introducing this policy are not financial, but social. Hungry children cannot concentrate properly, resulting in disruptive and ineffective learning. A proper lunch is thought to help greatly with concentration levels. When pilot projects were carried out in Durham and Newham, East London between 2009-2011, teachers reported a significant improvement in both behaviour and attainment.

Two main social groups were perceived to benefit the most from the pilot. The first were children who did not quite qualify for FSM under the normal rules, but whose families were clearly struggling financially. The other group who appeared to benefit is more of a surprise. Students who normally qualify for FSM achieved better academically and socially during the pilot projects. Why? Restaurant owner Henry Dimbleby, who carried out research for the government on this subject, says that this is because: “It completely changes the culture of the school. It creates a one-school culture where all teachers and children eat together, rather than ‘us and them’.”

This idea is further backed up by schools in Islington, North London, who have received FSM for all students since 2010, under a policy from their Labour-led council. Calvin Henry, an Islington headteacher, said: “This policy is … an effective social leveller. There is no stigma attached to having a FSM.”

Despite some initial grumblings about money (particularly in light of the government removing Child Benefit for higher income earners), there has been only limited opposition to the FSM policy in the press. The evidence of improved behaviour and attainment in the pilot studies is perhaps too compelling. It will be interesting to see the impact once this policy goes nationwide in 2015.

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