Free lunch urged for primary pupils
Free lunches could be offered to all primary school pupils in the future in a bid to improve children's health and raise standards in the classroom.
A new review into school food has called for free meals to be extended to all primary schools, starting in the most deprived areas of England.
The Government has agreed to look into the proposal, and it is understood that Education Secretary Michael Gove is broadly in favour of the plan.
The review, by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, co-founders of the Leon restaurant chain, also calls for headteachers to ban packed lunches, which are often unhealthy, to encourage pupils to eat school dinners instead.
The restaurateurs were charged with investigating the state of school dinners by Mr Gove last year, amid concerns that some children were still being offered unhealthy food. In their report, they made a number of recommendations to improve lunches - including that pupils be offered free dinners up to age 11. They said: "We believe that there is enough evidence - both from abroad and from English schools - to justify the partial introduction of universal free school meals." The move would mean almost three million extra youngsters eating free lunches.
Rolling out universal free school meals to primary schools will cost the public purse almost £1 billion, but Mr Dimbleby said encouraging more children to eat in the canteen would make it easier and cheaper to produce nutritious food. He said: ''Canteens are a bit like a restaurant - if you're half empty, you're losing money."
The review acknowledges that the "considerable costs" and the need to involve other parts of government besides the Department for Education in a universal free meals scheme make it a "big ask". It adds: "We are pleased that the Secretary of State agrees with us in principle and we would urge schools and councils to consider funding universal free schools themselves."
Mr Dimbleby said evidence shows that giving free meals to all children, not just those from low-income families, can benefit all pupils and "transform the culture in a school". The quality of the food is generally better, and the canteen becomes the "hub" of the school, with teachers and pupils eating together.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders warned that banning packed lunches is not the answer. He said: "Encouraging all students to eat a nutritious, hot, school lunch is the right aim, but it is not always feasible... Some secondary schools simply don't have the canteen facilities to cater easily for a thousand-plus students in a short space of time."
Public health minister Anna Soubry said: "Being overweight can do serious damage to our health so we must reduce levels in children to give them the best start in life. This plan will help to make sure that children are offered healthier foods at school and are given better information about the foods that they eat."