Southwark council has recently joined Islington and Newham in rolling out universal free dinners in its primary schools.
There is good evidence that free school meals in primary schools have benefits for children and schools. An evaluation of pilot schemes by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and National Centre for Social Research found the introduction of free school meals led to significant improvements in the attainment of children from low-income backgrounds.
In addition only 1% of packed lunches meet basic dietary needs, according to a 2010 Leeds University study. Free school meals also help families on low incomes. Other research suggests better fed children are better behaved and have better concentration levels.
Islington councillor Richard Watts, who is leading a campaign calling for wider universal free school, says many families are finding the costs of school dinners difficult.
….research from the Children’s Society published earlier this year found that more than 60% of children living in poverty were either ineligible or failing to claim free school meals. “We are increasingly hearing of families on the breadline, who are not officially in poverty, but are struggling to cope,” says Watts.
Alex Smith says that universal free meals would have social as well as health and educational benefits.
The narrow eligibility of the current free school meals provision means that many children, including one million who currently live in poverty, do not currently qualify for the meals. Those million children fall marginally below the threshold for receiving the benefit. Extending that threshold to include those children clearly makes sense. But it also makes sense to do more. Because there is currently, with the means tested free school meals provision, a problem around claiming the benefit that means that even many families who are eligible do not claim them, for fear of being stigmatised. While the children themselves may not, in the early years at least, feel that they are being treated differently from the rest, the evidence shows that one in four children who are currently eligible for the benefit do not claim it.
It seems to me that there are lots of good arguments for free school meals for primary school children. It’s a worthwhile and important campaign.