A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has revealed that offering universal free school meals increased attainment in primary schools in disadvantaged areas.
The research (pdf), by the IFS together with the National Centre Social Research and Bryson Purdon Social Research, shows pupils in Newham and Durham made between 4 and 8 weeks more progress over a two-year period than similar pupils in other areas.
From the results, the IFS conclude:
• Universal entitlement to free school meals significantly increased attainment in the pilot areas: relative to a carefully chosen group of similar pupils in non-pilot areas, pupils in Newham and Durham made between four and eight weeks more progress over the two year pilot period than pupils in other areas at Key Stages 1 and 2 (ages 7 and 11);
• By contrast, extending entitlement to free school meals to all pupils from low income families in work, as happened in Wolverhampton, had no significant effect on educational attainment for either primary or secondary school pupils.
Child welfare charity Kids Company found that the number of children relying on charities to feed them has risen by 233% in the last 12 months, with half of UK teachers reporting they have had to feed their students in the morning.
According to Save the Children, there are 1.6 million children living in poverty in the UK, with 1 in 5 relying on food banks.
Three in five (62 per cent) parents know local families where children are going hungry because their parents cannot afford to buy all the food they need, while more than half (56 per cent) are aware of parents whose abuse of drugs or alcohol means they are not feeding their children.
Some believe the problem will worsen in coming months as the school holidays see an end to free school meals for some of the poorest children.
• Two children in every classroom go hungry 5 Jul 2012
• Free school meals for all 27 Oct 2009
The Labour party in Islington, Newham and County Durham have just introduced free school meals for all – the latter two partly funded by the Government. The results so far show that almost all children are now eating healthy school meals, instead of unhealthy (and expensive) packed lunches or, worse, just some snacks eaten on the way to school.
This not only helps in the battle against childhood obesity, teachers also report that well-fed children learn better and behave better too.
But don’t all children who can’t currently afford a school meal get one for free already? Scandalously, no. The income qualification for free meals is so low that many families under the official poverty line still do not qualify.
Asking families like this to pay for school meals, which cost around £300-a-year per child, is one of the most invidious elements of the poverty trap. Simply the cost of school meals is one of the main reasons it doesn’t pay for some parents to return to work. Breaking the poverty trap is vital to getting more people into work, quickening the pace of economic recovery.
Finally, many children who are eligible for free school meals currently do not claim them, because of the perceived stigma. Some schools even ask children claiming a free school meals to use a different queue. The pilots of universal free school meals show that almost all of the families who would be eligible for free school meals now do claim them as the system no longer singles them out.
Cameron, Osborne and Gove, time and again, on everything from EMA to school sport, have put ideology before evidence, punishing the poor in the process… it’s almost as if they don’t want us lowly State school pupils to close the gap, in attainment, wealth or excellence.