No such thing as a free school lunch? What parents think of Nick Clegg's plans

There is some caution, but supporters of the scheme are excited about its benefits

Try telling parents who send their children to primary school in Southwark, south London, that there's no such thing as a free lunch and they'd probably laugh. Because that's just what their kids have been enjoying, every day, since the start of term.

That perk will extend to every family with children aged four to seven from next September, when the Government's policy of extending free school meals to all pupils for the first three years of primary school in England comes into play. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister who announced the plan at the Liberal Democrat conference, would ultimately like to see every pupil get a free hot meal. Ideally.

Fans of the initiative, such as the restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, believe it will make pupils healthier and help them to do better at school. Plus experience shows that making the benefit universal has boosted take up, quite apart from removing the stigma of being different from those tucking into something prepared at home.

Just six children out of 485 brought in a packed lunch today at one school in Southwark, according to Karen Willis, head teacher at St James' Church of England Primary in Bermondsey. In Islington, in north London, which has offered free school meals since September 2010, 85 per cent of pupils on average eat for nothing, with the figure rising to 94 per cent in St Mark's Primary School. (That said, some parents claim they've seen standards deteriorate over the years, with one mother forced to make packed lunches for three of her children because the meals aren't up to scratch.)

Then there's the financial saving for those families worst off: one local mum told Peter John, leader of Southwark Council, she was paying for her daughter to take dancing lessons. "The fact is, there was an increasing number of parents falling into dinner money arrears. This puts money back into pockets," he said. "It's changing children's eating habits. Parents have told us that their kids go home and ask for fruit and vegetables."

Mr Dimbleby, who co-founded the Leon restaurant chain and led a government review of school meals earlier this year, said making lunch free "completely changed the culture" within schools, with the least affluent pupils benefiting the most. He sees the move, which will cost £600m a year on top of the £428m already being spent on feeding those eligible to free meals, as part of a wider strategy of teaching people how to "live well" at school: cooking lessons for all children aged 14 and under will also start next September.

Richard Watts, a Labour councillor in Islington, added that teachers reported a significant impact on the atmosphere in a classroom. "When kids aren't hungry, they learn better." Elsewhere, students in Newham and Durham, where a free school meal was piloted for two years, were found to be on average two months ahead of their peers.

Not that everyone is on board. Far from it. Jonathan Simons, chair of Governors and co-founder of the Greenwich Free School, spoke for many educational professionals when he urged head teachers to be allowed to spend any spare cash. "A head might decide that the money would be better spent on free breakfast clubs, ironically not an option under this year plan." Mr Simons, who is also head of education at the Policy Exchange think tank, added: "Allocating more funds to the pupil premium would hand some of the poorest children in the UK and additional £500 each."

And despite "broadly welcoming" the news, Helen Barnard, poverty research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said more detailed evaluation was needed to work out how universal free school meal pilots boosted results. "Otherwise it will be difficult to judge in the future whether to maintain or extend the policy," she added.

As for those parents with qualms who can afford to pay, Mr John and Mr Dimbleby both said there was nothing stopping them from making other financial contributions to their school. "But we don't say 'I can afford to pay for my visit to the NHS' and that's a universal benefit," Mr John added.

CASE STUDIES

Colin Taylor, 37, father of two

"My five year old is in her second year of school in Bermondsey, Southwark, and since she started the school has offered free school meals to all children, irrespective of financial support in the home. This council-led initiative, which covers all school children in Southwark from the age of 5 to 11, even extends to parents and guardians. I haven't tried it out, but apparently the lasagne is very nice.

"We're lucky as a family in that we don't have to rely on free school meals for our kids. Some may think that because we don't rely on them we shouldn't be eligible, but I disagree. The school can't make any assumptions about children's diet out of school, and circumstances in the home can change so quickly. This way the school ensures all children get at least one good meal a day.

"It seems to me that eating well is so important to children in their wider education - better attention span and more energy, for example - as well and ensuring they get a balanced diet. Southwark have offered this to all primary school children, and for that I'm very grateful to them."

Karen Willis, head teacher, St James' Primary School, Bermondsey

"I think it's really important that children have a good quality hot meal and we know that sometimes for some pupils it's their only hot meal of the day. It's hard to measure the benefits because there are so many different factors and it's hard to generalise, but if we have decent food then it helps concentration.

We make all our meals on site and make sure we have really good quality ingredients. We didn't have any trouble [offering everyone a free meal] because we did have an awful lot of children who already had school lunch. It's lovely to see all the children sitting together and eating. It's a very good thing from that perspective and helps children's social skills. I eat with the children every day and so does the rest of the staff. It's lovely."

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape