Headteachers will be allowed to offer discounts on the price of school meals in an attempt to ensure more children benefit from a nutritious lunch in the middle of the day, under proposals to be debated by MPs this month.
Ministers hope to coax more children into school canteens by introducing flexible pricing. The aim is to improve the standard of food consumed from an early age. The move, part of the Government's Education Bill, will target groups including children in their first months at school; older pupils who have fallen into poor eating habits; and poorer families whose incomes put them just above the threshold that would make them eligible for free school meals.
The proposal comes amid growing concern over insufficient take-up of school meals, the standard of food consumed by thousands of British schoolchildren and the impact that has on their capacity to learn. The Independent on Sunday revealed earlier this year that rising costs were putting many hard-pressed families off school meals, with the average price rising by 10 per cent in a year.
The Bill will return to the House of Commons as new research reveals that lower prices would make families more likely to switch to healthy school meals. A survey by the School Food Trust (SFT) found that almost six out of 10 parents whose children didn't already have school meals said they would be prepared to try them this term if they were on offer at a reduced price.
At the moment, schools are banned from charging different prices for the same meal, and must ask the Government for permission to use variable pricing. The Education Bill would make it easier for schools to offer reduced prices, which could be used to help families on low incomes who don't qualify for free school meals, or families with more than one child at school.
Michael Nelson, SFT's director of research and nutrition, said: "If you're on a tight budget or you've got more than one child at school, the costs add up whether you opt for a school lunch or a packed lunch, and especially if you give your child money to buy snacks at the shops.
"But when children eat more healthily at lunchtime, they feel full and do better in their afternoon lessons."
The poll of 1,000 parents, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, also found that just under half of parents believed that school meals should be free for all pupils.
A number of local authorities have conducted versions of subsidised meal schemes in recent years, and the Government would like to see more follow their lead.
Schools in Leeds responded to concerns over the quality of pupils' packed lunches by dipping into their individual budgets and subsidising free meals as part of a "parent/child learning contract". Organisers said the "safety net" pilot improved the quality of pupils' food intake, and led parents to take more interest in their children's schoolwork.
However, a number of groups have warned that schools will not have the money to take advantage of their new powers.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "It is a good idea, given the importance of nutrition to learning, but I can't see it happening much in this financial climate. Schools have competing priorities and, when it comes to a choice between funding literacy or nutrition, they will choose literacy every time."