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Too early to tell if universal free school meals are beneficial, research finds

All children from reception through to year two in state schools in England are entitled to free school meals.

Universal free school meals save parents both time and money but it is too early to say whether it is beneficial for health or education, new research has found.

The free school meals policy was introduced for all children from reception through to year two in state schools in England in September 2014 in a bid to improve nutrition and academic standards.

But more than three years in, although there has been a jump in take up of school meals from 38% to around 80%, there is no clear proof the scheme is achieving its goals.

A report by the Educational Policy Institute, an independent research organisation, found that just 29% of 286 school leaders surveyed found that children’s readiness for learning had improved.

This figure jumped to 40% among teachers, although only 57 teachers were surveyed.

Just 30% of school leaders felt children’s health had improved, although 54% of the sample of teachers said the policy had so far had a positive impact on health.

But of 508 parents surveyed, 80% said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the scheme, and found it was saving them an average of £10 and 50 minutes each week buying and making packed lunches.

Some parents reported that the policy removed the stigma surrounding free school meals, and 56% said their child was now more likely to try new foods.

The research also found that 38% of parents said their child was more likely to drink water with their meals, while 33% said their child was more willing to eat pieces of fruit and vegetables.

Among school leaders, 41% said universal free school meals had improved the general profile of healthy eating across their schools.

Government funding allows £2.30 per meal, and the policy is due to cost the taxpayer £5.56 billion over a 10-year period, but the research found this might be inadequate in light of rising food prices.

The report said: “On reasonable assumptions of future cost inflation the current funding rate applied by the Department for Education are likely to become insufficient.

“Under this scenario, the net cost to schools – and the existing impacts on wider curriculum delivery and school staff time – will be increased, potentially undermining wider benefits that might be realised.”

Ahead of last year’s election, the Conservatives proposed to axe universal free school meals and return to a means-tested policy, replacing it with free school breakfasts for all primary school children.

The proposal was abandoned after the election following accusations it was just a cost-saving measure.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner fiercely opposed the move, saying a “paltry” 7p would be spent on each breakfast serving.

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Angela Rayner

School leaders said maintenance to kitchen facilities was one of the largest costs to their schools in relation to universal free school meals.

Peter Sellen, chief economist at the Education Policy Institute, said: “UIFSM has delivered a rapid increase in school meal take-up over a short period of time – with a considerable amount of money spent on kitchens, facilities, and staffing to enable this.

“The policy has also delivered financial benefits and time savings for parents, and while it is too early to detect whether the policy has had an impact on educational and health outcomes, some schools and parents have perceived benefits for children’s readiness for learning, the profile of health eating in schools, and children’s eating habits.”

The research included data from 327 schools, and as well as teachers and head teachers, catering staff, meal supervisors, teaching assistants and administrators were also surveyed.

A Department for Education spokesman said the report showed how the free school meals programme was benefiting 1.4 million children across the country, adding: “We have supported schools by providing £184.5 million capital funding to upgrade kitchen and dining facilities, as well as giving extra money to help smaller schools provide these meals.

“This is part of the Government’s wider efforts to encourage children of all ages to eat good food that encourages healthy eating for life.”

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