Children from poorer homes are having to take it in turns to eat school dinners because of their cost, inspectors revealed today.
The dilemma is faced by parents who earn just above the breadline of £16,040 a year which would entitle their children to free school meals.
They would have qualified for the free dinners under an expansion of free school meals planned by Labour but axed by the coalition Government.
In a report of school food by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, today, the inspectors say: "A more difficult area to tackle... was the take-up of school meals by families whose income was low but who were above the threshold for being entitled to free school meals.
"Parents from these families told inspectors that they often could not afford to pay for a school lunch, especially if they had more than one child."
The report went on to describe how children from the same family had to take turns and eat school dinners on alternate weeks to help their parents afford them.
School meals can cost up to £3.50p a day. The average cost for a primary school is £1.77p a day and £1.88p a day for secondaries.
It also warned that low income families were less able to provide healthy packed lunches as an alternative to school dinners.
"Little account was taken of the fact that many families whose income was low did not have transport and therefore had to rely on what was available in the immediate locality," it added.
"Local shopkeepers were unlikely to stock appropriate food unless they could be convinced of the financial viability of doing so.
"Unhealthy packed lunches did not necessarily reflect parents' lack of commitment or cooperation but, rather, a complex set of local circumstances."
Overall, though, the report praised schools' efforts to introduce healthier eating habit - in particular singling out the spread of breakfast clubs which enabled pupils from poorer homes to eat before lessons thus improving their attention span during school time.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said of the report: "As a result of the impact of the government's cost-cutting measures we know that there will be many more families that will find it very hard to make ends meet.
"This is not the time for Government to cut the planned extension of free school meals to children in poor, working families."
The department for Education said the planned expansion had been scrapped because Labour had under-budgeted for its introduction. The decision would help protect "front-line" services.
Meanwhile, schools will no longer have to offer pupils the chance to study each one of the previous Government's flagship new diplomas. They will be able to decide for themselves which to offer, Schools Minister Nick Gibb said yesterday.
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