This is the right way to go

20/02/2014 - 14:16
Since the deputy prime minister’s announcement in September, the topic of universal free school meals (FSM) has been the subject of much discussion. Having seen it first hand, I believe this one policy can improve children’s attainment and behaviour, and help tackle obesity.

For various reasons, the standard and quality of lunches provided to children of primary-school age has been declining for many years now. Whether willingly or not, policy makers, and to some extent the teaching and catering professions, have effectively turned a blind eye to this.

There are those who would argue that a blanket approach to providing all Key Stage (KS) 1 children with a free lunch is a retrograde step and a total waste of national resources, or that this approach should be limited to low-income families.

These critics typically cite pilot studies undertaken on extended entitlement, such as those carried out in Scotland and Hull.

A more interesting and relevant set of data, however, is to be found in the study into the impact of universal FSM undertaken in Durham and Newham during 2009–2011, and a partial FSM pilot undertaken in Wolverhampton.

This evaluation highlighted a strong rise in uptake levels among pupils who were not previously entitled to free meals but also among those who were.

More importantly, this study demonstrated a positive attainment improvement of KS1 and KS2 pupils over a period of time of between four and eight weeks in areas of universal entitlement. This positive attainment was not seen in areas where schools were not part of the FSM scheme.

This evidence was further supported anecdotally by many head teachers, who felt that children were calmer and more ‘on task’ during the afternoon lessons.

There is much evidence to demonstrate that the roots of obesity lie in childhood. Since we hear so much about ‘the obesity epidemic’ which, as a nation, we’re struggling to curb, we should consider how we feed children as a starting point.

Giving all children the opportunity to have a healthy meal at least once in the day may not be the total solution – but it is a significant start.  

The short duration of the study meant that its impact on child obesity was inconclusive, but the evaluation showed that the substantial quantitative increase in take-up of school meals was accompanied by a qualitative change in the types of food that pupils were choosing for lunch.

During the pilot scheme, children were more likely to eat hot food, including vegetables, potatoes, rice and pasta. By contrast, they were less likely to eat crisps and sandwiches. They were also more likely to drink water and less likely to drink soft drinks with lunch.

This does not indicate the perfect diet, granted. However, with approximately one third of UK children aged between two and 15 being classed as overweight, this has to be better than what has become the norm.

Some will argue that that previous pilot schemes showed only moderate increases in take up, but the Durham pilot achieved uptake levels of just under 90% against the number of pupils on roll. When sickness and absence rates are factored in this demonstrated a dramatic rate of uptake.  

Elsewhere, a pilot in Bolton, where meals were given free to children in reception then subsidised in subsequent years, found that children given free meals early in their school careers were more likely to continue with school lunches even after they become paid-for. This is why focusing the policy on KS1 children is a cost-effective way of rolling out the policy.

It’s not just about the price of meals, however. Engagement with pupils is critical in increasing uptakes. Children are customers who, like shoppers on the high street, will choose with their eyes and walk with their feet if the service doesn’t meet their needs. They like to eat with their friends, and peer trends play a huge part.

Engagement with the head teacher and teaching staff is also vital, as without buy-in from schools and an acceptance of the importance of food in keeping children on task, the catering service will continue to be seen as a ‘Cinderella’ service.

Finally, there is engagement with parents. Whenever we hold parent tasting days, the most overheard comment is: “This is not how I remember school dinners.”

Changing parents’ perceptions and helping them understand the relative costs and quality aspects of food is critical to helping grow uptake levels in school meals.

As the only contract caterer involved in the FSM pilot, we have seen first-hand the benefits that school meals can bring to local children.

A universal approach may not be popular with everyone but, while there is limited tangible evidence to show a link to health improvement, there are quantifiable benefits to learning, dietary changes and children’s approach to healthier food.

I firmly believe that a universal approach will ultimately provide significant benefits to our country in terms of the health and productivity of our children, which will in turn lead to that of the nation’s workforce. A universal FSM programme for KS1 children is an excellent start.

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