Nick Clegg: “A healthy hot meal gives children the ability to concentrate and do well in the classroom”

All pupils at infant schools in England are to get free school lunches from next September, Lib Dem leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg has announced.

The change – for children in reception, year one and year two – will save parents about £400 a year per child.

Targeting infants would ensure “every child gets the chance in life they deserve”, teach healthy eating habits and boost attainment, Mr Clegg said.

Money is being provided for Wales, Scotland and N Ireland to do likewise.

But as education is a devolved issue, it is up to those running schools there to decide whether to spend the money on free lunches.

‘Feeling the squeeze’

Free primary school meals for all pupils was one of the recommendations of a recent review of school food by two founders of the Leon restaurant chain for the Department for Education.

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Analysis

Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent


The idea of free school meals for all pupils has been cooking away for many years.

There have been several pilot studies and researchers analysing the outcomes last year claimed that a free meal for all helped to narrow the divide in the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils.

Supporters argued that children with a regular healthy meal were more likely to be able to concentrate, get better academic results and were less likely to be obese. It’s a public health approach, covering everyone for the long-term benefit.

A similar project saw free fruit being given to the infant years, with its advocates saying that the gains from this measure would be felt decades in the future.

The quality of school food has also become an issue, since Jamie Oliver exposed the dark underbelly of twizzler cuisine.

Now Nick Clegg’s announcement will see free meals offered as the recipe for better results.

It concluded that packed lunches were nearly always less nutritious than a cooked meal, and that giving all children free lunches would raise academic standards.

Mr Clegg said: “My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day.

“Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze… I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families.

“We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits.

“Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society.”

At the moment free school meals are available to all children whose parents are on benefits or earn less than £16,190 a year.

Providing free meals for all infants will cost an estimated £600m and comes after the previously universal child benefit was cut for those earning over £50,000.

Marriage tax break

Asked if it was fair to provide free schools lunches for the children of all irrespective of wealth, Mr Clegg said: “We believe that where we can find the money, even in these difficult times, we need to really invest that money in giving all children regardless of their family background the very best possible start in life.”

He said the details of where the money to fund the lunches was coming from would be given in the chancellor’s autumn statement.

At a briefing ahead of the announcement the Lib Dems suggested they had got the funding for school lunches in return for allowing Conservative plans for a marriage tax break.

The Department for Education ordered the review by restaurateurs Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent into the state of school meals in 2012 following strong criticism from TV chef Jamie Oliver, who earlier led a successful campaign to ban junk and processed food from school canteens.

This resulted in tight nutritional guidelines and healthy eating policies in many schools for those bringing packed lunches.

But in 2011 he claimed that standards were being eroded because academies and free schools were exempt from national nutritional guidelines.

BBC

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