Select Committee on Education and Employment First Special Report

First Report: School Meals (HC 96)

SESSION 1999-2000
First Report: School Meals (HC 96)

Published: 14 December


Government Reply: Third Special Report, Session

 1999-2000 (HC 291)

Published: 2 March 2000


Government Response

Further Government Action

1. We are grateful to the DfEE for inviting people responding to the Draft Regulations and Guidance to send a copy of their views to the Clerk of this Committee.

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.

The Government's summary of responses to the consultation exercise were made available to Members at the debate on 22 June, and the Regulations were laid on 12 July and placed in the House Library.

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.

We are providing research funding to enable the Child Poverty Action Group to tender for research into why some pupils do not take up their entitlement to free school meals. This research will form the basis of best practice advice and guidance next spring; we also intend that the findings will contribute to our planned initiatives on whole school food policies.

The Government have agreed to fund the reduction in subsidy from the EU School Milk Subsidy Scheme from 1 January 2001. The £1.5m shortfall will be met jointly by DfEE, MAFF and Department of Health.

4. We recommend that the Government should draw on additional resources available 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.

New resources for schools announced in the budget will provide better opportunities for them to invest in new kitchen and dining facilities.

More capital funding will be made available to schools and LEAs through formula funding, enabling them to have more freedom to give priority to kitchen and dining room improvement projects if they choose.

Decisions have yet to be announced on priorities for future initiatives to be funded from the New Opportunities Fund. There is intense competition for NOF resources which are unlikely to be able to accommodate funding for school kitchens and dining areas.

Schools will be able to use the extra funding recently announced in the Budget, to spend on these facilities. The new direct grants give up to £9,000 extra to each primary school and £60,000 for secondary schools; next year, even more direct funding will be available—a typical primary will receive £20,000 and secondary schools could receive up to £70,000.

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.

Our supplementary guidance to caterers on the new nutritional standards will be published this autumn. This will highlight the nutritional benefits of providing water, milk and fruit juice to accompany school meals, as opposed to drinks with high levels of sugar and additives.

6. 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.

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.

We are continuing to work closely with the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency, to put together a practical approach for developing a whole school approach to food.

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.

This is something we will address as part of our proposals for a whole school approach.

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.

The Government recognises 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.

The value of a hot meal, particularly in the winter months, will be highlighted in the complementary guidance for caterers which we are currently preparing.

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

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.

We have been working closely with school caterers, nutritionists, and school staff, in developing the guidance for caterers, to ensure that it reflects the sector's skills and expertise, and clarifies what elements represent mandatory requirements and those intended as good practice advice. We are extremely grateful to them for their important and constructive contribution to this work.

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 dieticians.

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.

The Government published its new nutritional standards, based on the four main food groups set out in the "Balance of Good Health", on 12 July 2000.

12. 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.

13. We recommend that greater efforts should be made to provide an attractive choice of fruit at break times.

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.

The Government announced in July, as part of the NHS Plan, our aim to introduce a National School Fruit Scheme whereby every child aged four to six will be entitled to a free piece of fruit (or vegetable) each school day, as part of a national campaign to improve the diet of children. The scheme will be piloted in various areas of the country prior to national roll out.

In addition, MAFF and the Food Standards Agency are producing guidance for schools on how to set up fruit tuck shops. This will be available on Wired for Health, the Healthy Schools website, and some of its key features incorporated into our whole school food initiative.

14. 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.

As above

As above

15. 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.

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.

We shall ensure that the good practice guidance includes an example of a simple checklist for caterers to use, and schools or LEAs if they wish, to ensure they are meeting the nutritional standards. In addition, we shall include in the guidance the Caroline Walker Trust guidelines where Local Education Authorities, schools or caterers wish to monitor the nutrient content of school meals.

We shall be undertaking our own longer term evaluation of the impact of the new nutritional standards, using baseline data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

16. 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.

As above

17. We prefer a nutrient-based approach to one using food groups as the basis for legally enforceable minimum nutritional standards. A carefully-monitored school meals service is not an optional extra. This approach is a vital ingredient in promoting alertness, ability to learn and participation of children in the whole of school life as part of an overall effort to promote a healthier nation and to combat social exclusion and disadvantage in schools.

As 11

As 11

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