Free school meals for every primary school pupil? Education Secretary Michael Gove joins the war on packed lunches

Minister backs £1bn plan to boost attainment through better nutrition

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All primary school children could get free school meals under proposals being considered by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

A review of school food recommends that giving out free lunches to all primary pupils could help improve their health and educational achievement. The scheme could be trialled in the most deprived parts of England.

The review, published this morning, also recommends that headteachers consider banning packed lunches altogether, claiming that just 1 per cent of them meet the nutritional standards of a cooked school meal.  The School Food Plan was commissioned by the Education Secretary last year to examine pupils’ unhealthy eating. It was conducted by the co-founders of the Leon restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, who say “every word” was endorsed and “signed off” by Mr Gove himself.

Feeding all pupils up to the age of 11 would mean almost three million more children would receive free meals, at an additional cost of almost £1bn.

Mr Dimbleby said giving free meals to all children, not just those from low-income families, could benefit all pupils and “transform the culture in a school”. He said that the canteen should become the “hub” of the school, with teachers and pupils eating together. The report acknowledges the “considerable costs” of the proposal, but says: “We are pleased the Secretary of State agrees with us in principle and we would urge schools and councils to consider funding universal free school meals themselves.”

Mr Dimbleby told The Independent: “Gove believes simply that this is what schools should be doing … he’s signed off every word in that document.”

Other recommendations include  simplifying the nutritional standards expected of catering in schools and encouraging headteachers to provide incentives for ditching packed lunches – or banning them altogether.

In a U-turn, Mr Gove has agreed to make the new standards mandatory across state education, including academies. The plan also says young people should not be forced to queue for hours or to eat off “prison-style trays” and argues for cookery lessons to be introduced at a younger age.

But some of the recommendations in the 149-page report were greeted with some scepticism by the teaching profession. Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Encouraging all students to eat a nutritious, hot, school lunch is the right aim, but it is not always feasible.

“Many hard-working families on relatively low incomes give their children packed lunches because they don’t qualify for free school meals and the cost of a school dinner would be prohibitive. Some secondary schools simply don’t have the canteen facilities to cater easily for a thousand or more students in a short space of time.

“There needs to be significant additional investment if all schools are to be able to avoid long dinner queues and create the kind of environment that we all would like to eat in.”

With just 43 per cent of pupils eating school dinners, the report says encouraging more children to eat them would help make sure meals were produced more economically. This is necessary, it says, because only 1 per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of school food, with many containing unhealthy snacks such as crisps, sweets and chocolate.

Mr Gove said: “What I’d like to see is more children eating school lunches… and more children feeling healthier and more energetic throughout the day. I would like to thank John and Henry for the hard work that went into this plan and believe we now have a set of actions that can make a real difference across the country.”

The review concludes that things have moved on since Jamie Oliver, the television chef, found schools rife with ersatz food such as Turkey Twizzlers, but that more needs to be done to make them healthier.

Commenting on the findings, Oliver said: “Getting cooking on the curriculum until the age of 14 and encouraging kids to eat school food are big steps, and we really need to get behind school cooks and headteachers to improve school food.

“I know how much energy and passion has gone into this plan. Now it has to deliver on its promises and make sure no schools are left behind – and that responsibility sits with this Government.”

Case study: ‘I’m pleased as they broaden my son’s diet’

Lizzie Hamilton’s son Edward, 13, has packed lunches at secondary school, while his younger brother, Joseph,  10, has school dinners at  primary school.

"Ed prefers to take packed lunches but he still has school dinners every Friday as a treat. His school have a credit system so I can go online and put money into his account. I can put a limit on what he spends every day.

“I think a big issue is the cost. It’s expensive to buy school dinners every day, which is why they can’t be made compulsory.

“I’m pleased that Joe has decided to take school dinners. He can be quite pernickety with food, so it broadens his diet.

“Packed lunches are a lot cheaper, but then I have to go out and buy the stuff which takes time. You can also see what they eat because they bring leftovers home.

“School dinners offer more variety and they encourage your child to eat different things.”