Select Committee on Education and Employment Third Special Report


THIRD SPECIAL REPORT


The Education and Employment Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—

GOVERNMENT'S RESPONSE TO THE FIRST REPORT OF THE EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT COMMITTEE, 1999-2000

SCHOOL MEALS

The Education and Employment Committee reported to the House on School Meals in its First Report of Session 1999-2000, published on 7 December 1999 as HC96. The Government's response to that Report was received on 14 February 2000. It is reproduced as an Annex to this Special Report.

ANNEX

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO THE FIRST REPORT FROM THE EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT COMMITTEE, SESSION 1999-2000:

SCHOOL MEALS

RESPONSE FROM THE DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT

14 February 2000

THE EDUCATION SUB-COMMITTEE'S REPORT ON SCHOOL MEALS

I am responding on behalf of the Government to the Sub-committee's report on school meals, published on 14 December.

As you know, our consultation on draft regulations and guidance ended last month and I have been pleased with the level of interest there has been in it. The Sub-committee's report has doubtless contributed to raising the profile of school meals and encouraging more people to write to us. I am grateful for that. The responses will not only help us to improve the drafting of regulations and guidance, but have also been key to informing this response to the Select Committee.

The majority of respondents to the consultation supported food-based standards. Support for nutrient-based standards was largely confined to health professionals, most of whom saw a role for them, either as the base for standard-setting or as a means of monitoring that food-based standards were providing adequate amounts of key nutrients.

Many of those who commented told us that in seeking to strike a balance between compulsory regulations and good practice guidance we had come down too heavily on the side of regulation. The proposal to restrict the frequency of serving popular foods such as chips, baked beans and cheese, particularly in secondary schools, gave rise to particular concerns. There was a widely-held view that the key to improving the eating habits of students at secondary schools was a process of educating them to make balanced choices.

Proposals to restrict the fat and sugar content of foods high in one or both to a percentage of their uncooked weight in primary schools was deemed by almost all of those who commented as impractical. However, few respondents made alternative suggestions for how the fat and sugar might be limited.

The following alternative timetable for phasing in the standards was suggested by several respondents:

From 1 September 2000: nursery schools, primary schools, middle-deemed primary schools

From 1 September 2001: secondary schools, middle-deemed secondary schools.

The Government's response to the Sub-committee's specific recommendations is as follows.

Recommendation 2

We recommend that the Government should not be over-prescriptive in its approach to implementing minimum nutritional standards for school lunches.

The Government accepts this recommendation.

We are committed to setting minimum nutritional standards which help all pupils to have nutritionally-balanced school lunches but which are practical for caterers to implement. I accept that many respondents to the consultation found our proposals too detailed. We have taken note of these concerns and will act on them to ensure that the regulations are less prescriptive.

When the regulations are laid before Parliament, I will send copies to members of the Committee.

Recommendation 3

We agree with UNISON and the Child Poverty Action Group that the Government should carry out research into the reasons for low take up of free school meals and we recommend that the research should study the attitudes of children and their parents to claiming their entitlement to free school meals.

In principle the Government accepts this recommendation.

We are concerned that 322,000 pupils who were known to be eligible for a free school lunch did not have a meal on the day when the statistics were collected in January 1999. As we stated in Ingredients for Success published in October 1998, our aim is to encourage more pupils entitled to free school lunches to take them.

We are discussing with the Child Poverty Action Group the proposed scope of such a study. As I am sure you will appreciate, I cannot give a firm commitment to funding ahead of the confirmation of the Department's research budget for 2000-01, but I hope that we will be able to support a project in this area. I am keen that a study results in practical strategies which schools can employ to increase uptake of free school meals.

Recommendation 4

We recommend that the Government should draw on additional resources from the New Deal for Schools, the Standards Fund or the New Opportunities Fund to support investment in the provision of school kitchens and dining areas.

It is one of the Government's priorities to improve the schools estate. We have implemented major increases in capital investment. Funding is more than doubling over the next three years. Over this period over £5.5 billion will be invested in school buildings in England.

Funding is available through the New Deal for Schools for improving school buildings. This money is paid through the Standards Fund. New Deal for Schools funding has already supported improvements to school meals facilities. It can be used in the future to modernise school kitchens and dining rooms, if schools and local education authorities wish to prioritise that work. In addition, from April 2000 schools will also have some £190 million of new funding in the form of devolved formula capital. If they wish, this can be used for modernising or repairing kitchens and dining areas.

The Government will be considering the priorities for future initiatives to be funded by the New Opportunities Fund.

We are planning to issue good practice guidance on the design of school dining facilities.

Recommendation 5

We recommend on dental and more general health grounds that school pupils should be encouraged to take drinks which are free of sugar and additives or have low levels of sugar and additives

Our proposals require drinking water to be freely available every day. All respondents who commented on this point agreed with the proposal. We will encourage the provision of alternatives to soft drinks, such as milk and fruit juice. We do not plan to ban outright any foods or drinks from school lunches.

Recommendations 6 and 12

We recommend that headteachers should work with governors and parents to agree on ways to monitor the nutritional value of packed lunches which pupils bring to school.

We recommend that, to be consistent with a whole school approach, the contribution of vending machines and school tuck shops to children's diets should be monitored by headteachers and governing bodies.

The Government does not propose to introduce a legal obligation for other school food or packed lunches brought from home to comply with specific nutritional standards. Any attempts by school staff to control the quality of pupils' lunch boxes would be impractical and for some parents this would constitute an unacceptable intrusion into family life. It would also be an unacceptable burden on schools. We support a whole-school approach so that pupils receive consistent messages about food and nutrition. I know that some schools have worked closely with parents to encourage them to improve the nutritional balance of the packed lunches they provide for their children. This is something I support, but I strongly believe that a light touch is called for. We plan to draw up practical guidance for schools on adopting a whole school approach, encompassing vending machines, tuck shops and packed lunches.

Recommendation 7

We recommend that school governors and local education authorities should take steps to make it a priority that all schools should have enough space for children with packed lunches to sit with their peers taking hot meals. We would prefer peer pressure to work in the direction of encouraging school pupils to opt in rather than opt out of school meals.

I fully agree that pupils should be encouraged to have a school meal. We would like as many pupils as possible to take school meals, while allowing them the freedom to opt for alternatives, if that is what they or their parents wish. Where space and other constraints permit pupils to sit with their friends, whether they are having a school meal or a packed lunch, I would support such arrangements. We will look at encouraging this in the good practice guidance on a whole-school approach mentioned above.

Recommendation 8

In our view, a school lunch service which does not offer a hot meal will have difficulty in attracting pupils who always have the alternative—if their parents can afford it—of bringing a packed lunch.

It falls outside the scope of the Secretary of State's current powers to introduce a mandatory requirement to provide a hot meals service. Section 114 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 permits him to set 'nutritional standards or other nutritional requirements' for school lunches.

I recognise that while hot meals in winter can be comforting, they are less likely to be popular choices during a summer heatwave. We would like school meals providers to have the flexibility to respond to pupils' tastes by offering a salad bar, for example. However, I am aware that many parents perceive hot school meals as providing added value and that the replacement of a hot service by a cold one can make school meals seem less attractive. We will address these issues in guidance.

Recommendation 9

We strongly agree that there is great value in communal school meals being used to enhance the sense of community in schools.

We accept this recommendation.

Recommendation 10

We recommend that the DfEE should revise and simplify further the guidance to caterers, in consultation with their representatives, so that it recognises the skills and expertise of the readership to whom it is addressed.

We accept this recommendation.

The responses to our consultation made numerous suggestions for improving the guidance, including giving it a sharper focus, differentiating more clearly between compulsory requirements and good practice and simplifying or removing some sections. We will take account of suggestions made and will work closely with caterers to ensure that the final version is appropriate for the target audience.

Recommendation 11

On balance we agree with the view of the National Heart Forum that the compulsory element of the Regulations should be based on scientific nutrient-based guidelines, and that contracts with caterers should specify minimum nutritional standards which can readily be enforced. While we welcome the food group approach as helpful non-technical guidance for lay governors and parents, we are not persuaded that it is a suitable basis for statutory regulation.

The Government does not support this recommendation and believes that it is inconsistent with the Committee's wish to see less prescriptive standards.

Most respondents to our recent consultation agreed that national nutritional standards should be expressed in terms of foods rather than nutrients. The Government concurs with the LACA that nutrient-based standards would be too complicated to introduce, maintain and monitor on a frequent basis. In the words of one respondent, nutrient-based standards can be 'a tyranny of numbers'. School caterers are experts in their field but they are not qualified dietitians.

Food-based standards reflect current Government advice on the types and proportions of foods that make up a healthy, balanced diet, particularly the need to eat greater amounts of starchy foods and fruit and vegetables. They can be readily understood by caterers when planning menus, ordering supplies, serving food and self-monitoring compliance with the standards. They are, therefore, more likely to be successfully implemented. The flexibility which food-based standards provide is less likely to lead to large amounts of plate waste. There is no nutritional value in food that is not eaten.

Recommendations 13 and 14

We recommend that greater efforts should be made to provide an attractive choice of fruit at break times. We recommend that the DfEE should work with MAFF to secure an expanded intervention stocks disposal scheme as the basis for a wider national fruit and vegetable scheme for schools.

The Government accepts both of these recommendations in principle.

A diet rich in fruit and vegetables brings many health benefits, most notably decreasing the risk of chronic diseases including coronary heart disease and cancer. A target of at least five portions of vegetables and fruit each day has been advocated by the UK's Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy, as well as the World Health Organisation. However, intakes in the UK are among the lowest in Europe, on average only three portions each day and among children, intakes are particularly low.

We are considering the possibility of introducing an initiative to boost the consumption of fruit in schools, subject to securing funding and resolving a number of practical problems. These relate to the seasonality of fresh fruit and the lack of an existing suitable distribution mechanism to schools.

We propose to address the issue of fruit in tuck shops in our guidance on a whole-school approach.

MAFF is funding researchers in various parts of the UK to investigate the effectiveness of different primary school-based interventions in increasing children's fruit and vegetable consumption. The results should help to inform these initiatives.

Recommendations 15 and 16

We recommend that monitoring should be based realistically on what children actually eat. The onus should be on the contractor to meet nutrient-based standards, subject to independent spot checks, which should reduce the need for extensive monitoring by governors or local education authorities.

We recommend that OFSTED should be required to report on the effectiveness of the arrangements a school or local education authority has to monitor its compliance with national nutritional standards.

In line with the Committee's recommendations and the widely-held view among respondents to our consultation, we will be simplifying the proposed regulations. The arrangements for monitoring compliance must be commensurate with the standards. Light touch standards will require light touch monitoring. Our good practice guidance proposes that caterers should regularly complete straightforward checklists to make sure that they are meeting the standards. It will be for the local education authority or, where responsibility for school meals is delegated, the school governing body to make sure that the school meals contractor is complying with the standards. We may conduct our own sample surveys from time to time and we will investigate any complaints that the standards are not being met and could issue a direction to ensure compliance with statutory duties.

The Government is committed to raising the standard of pupils' attainment in schools and accepts that a child who has eaten properly is more receptive to learning. However, it is also committed to reducing the administrative burdens on schools, including those placed upon them by inspections. OFSTED's frameworks for school and LEA inspections already make substantial demands of schools and inspectors. Its remit is concerned with educational standards and its inspectors are not qualified to assess nutritional standards. We do not, therefore, agree that OFSTED should be required to check additionally on how monitoring of nutritional standards is being carried out.

In addition the Government will continue to monitor children's diets. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey of almost 2000 4 to 18 year olds carried out in 1997-8 collected information about what some of the pupils ate as part of a school lunch. The results of the survey will be published in the next few months. This study and future ones will enable us to monitor changes in children's eating patterns in the context of our wider health strategy.

Finally, I would like to thank the Committee once again for its interest in school meals and its valuable contribution to our discussions on nutritional standards.

JACQUI SMITH


 
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