Jamie Oliver's healthy school dinners have produced a marked improvement in national curriculum test results, according to the first-ever research into their impact on standards, published today.
A study by the Royal Economic Society shows youngsters reared on the healthier dinners that the TV chef introduced into schools did far better in tests for 11-year-olds.
Researchers Michele Belot, from Oxford University, and Jonathan Jones, from Essex, looked at the test results for pupils in Greenwich schools who started their school life in 2004 - the year that Oliver's Channel 4 TV series launched its healthier school dinners campaign in 80 of the authority’s schools.
They showed a 3 to 6 percentage point improvement in the number of youngsters reaching the required standard in English tests in the schools surveyed, which were serving healthier lunches, and a three to eight percentage point improvement in the numbers attaining a higher level science pass – thus having the ability of the average 13-year-old.
Nationally, the percentage reaching the required standard has remained almost static over the past six years.
In addition, the number of children marked down as having authorised absences – mainly made up of youngsters off sick – showed a 15 per cent decrease.
“It is possible that the programme will continue to have an effect on children’s behaviour and health through adolescence,” the researchers conclude.
They add that – even if the benefits are only short-term – they have had just as much effect in raising standards than the introduction of the literacy hour in the late 1990s.
Jamie Oliver’s programme led to a massive campaign to improve the quality of school dinners which has seen new nutritional standards introduced in every school in the land.
His campaign saw low budget processed meals high in saturated fat, salt and sugar replaced by a healthier option. Turkey Twizzlers were banned and replaced with a nutrient-rich diet with more concentration on coconut, fish and broccoli.
He said of today’s findings: “The research results are fantastic. This is the first time a proper study has been done into the positive effects of the ‘Feed Me Better’ campaign and it strongly suggests we were right after all.
“Even while doing the programme, we could see the benefits to children’s health and teachers – we could see that asthmatic kids weren’t having to use the school inhalers, for instance. We could see it made them calmer and therefore more able to learn.”
It coincides with a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers which shows two-thirds of primary school staff believe every child should have access to a free school meal.
In addition, 53 per cent of secondary school staff think the same.
Tom Huck, a primary school teacher from Boston, Lincolnshire, said: “Free school meals would benefit children in many ways: healthy hot meal each day, some control over their diet, improved table manners, improved tolerance of each other, hopefully better behaviour in the afternoon and a good social experience.”
More than one in seven teachers added that they believed on-site catering facilities were inadequate for providing school dinners, with almost one in 10 saying they did not have any facilities on-site at all.
Meryl Harries, from Medway, Kent, told the ATL in Liverpool that “fast food” equalled “slow brain”.
“This the 21st century,” she added. “We want 21st century schools and equipment for our children.”