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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle): It is good to be back. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing the debate. It is an essential subject if we wish, as we all do, to ensure that all our children can develop to their full potential and live happy and healthy lives.

There is a real will to make improvements, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. The Government have been making progress in the matter by promoting whole-school approaches to health, as he mentioned. We reintroduced nutritional standards in 2001 and promised to review their effectiveness. Our strong belief is that this push will eventually result in happier, healthier children who are confident and motivated to make important life and health choices, and who are more likely to behave well and perform well academically.

Whole-school food policies and the quality of school meals are vital components in this strategy. As my hon. Friend said, recent studies have shown that the prevalence of obesity and of being overweight is increasing in children and we know that children eat far too much fat, salt and sugar and on average less than half the recommended daily portions of fruit and vegetables. We are clear about how to tackle the problem. Working closely with the soon-to-be-established school food trust, to which my hon. Friend made favourable reference, we will define nutritional standards for school meals, ensure that sufficient money is in the system to meet minimum spending levels on ingredients and that it is well spent, monitor closely the improvements or changes that result, and stimulate demand for higher quality by mobilising and empowering consumers and stakeholders.

We will be persistent advocates for change and build capacity in the system to meet the demand for improvements. That will mean challenging and supporting local authorities and other partners—schools, school caterers, suppliers and contractors—to ensure that effective local delivery of our national standards can be achieved. We will make full use of available capital resources to improve dining areas and kitchens. That is essential if there is to be real improvement in the future. We will develop and roll out improved training for school catering staff, another point that my hon. Friend emphasised.

Research by the Department for Education and Skills and the Food Standards Agency into secondary school meal standards published last year has given us a valuable insight into how the current standards and guidance are being applied. The research confirmed that there is still much to do to improve school meals, and that work is needed to improve pupils' food choices. Even in schools where healthy food is offered, pupils are making poor choices.

We have convened an expert school meals review panel. My hon. Friend mentioned the work of that group, which met for the first time last week. It is a temporary advisory group consisting of 24 members
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from a variety of professional backgrounds, including field and academic dieticians and nutritionists, school head teachers, governors and support staff, and catering and industry professionals. Observers from key Government Departments will also attend the meetings.

The remit of the panel is to advise the Government on how best to meet their commitment in the public health White Paper to improving school food through the revision of school meals standards aimed at delivering a reduction in pupils' consumption of fat, salt and sugar and an increase in the consumption of fruit, vegetables and other foods containing essential nutrients. The panel has been asked to recommend what form nutritional standards for schools should take and to strongly consider moving from food group standards to nutrient-based standards while bearing in mind issues of cost and implementation. My hon. Friend was concerned about that, but value for money in the spending of public funds is always an important consideration.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I thank the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) for an excellent speech, and invite the Minister to look   back at my Adjournment debate last year on school meals, after Conservative-controlled Essex county council in effect abolished school meals in primary schools. What will happen to primary schools across Essex, particularly in my constituency, not all of which now provide a school meals service? At the very least, would it not be a good idea to reintroduce the Education Act 1944, which sensibly laid out what was required? My concern is that there are schoolchildren who do not even have the opportunity for a school dinner.

Maria Eagle: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I will look at that. He will realise that some of us are new to our responsibilities and will not have followed as assiduously as Ministers in the previous Parliament every single Adjournment debate. However, I shall certainly look up that debate and get back to him on that.

The panel will also advise on whether there are grounds for restricting choice, or restricting or eliminating certain types of food or food ingredients from schools meals, and on the costs and benefits of specifying proportions of fresh, unprocessed food and introducing hot food in all schools, and recommend whether certain foodstuffs should be restricted or banned. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that that remit enables some radical thinking to be done by that expert group, and we look forward to hearing what it has to say.

The timetable for implementation is that the panel aims to have draft minimum standards for secondary schools from September 2005, with schools being free to start to work towards them from that date, with those for primary schools following shortly afterwards, and with the final version of the standards coming into force from September 2006. Those are serious moves forward.

It is envisaged that the one-year lead-in will allow sufficient time for schools and local education authorities to assess the changes that will need to be made and, with the additional funding that will be made available to them, to make progress towards achieving the new requirements ready for their implementation in September 2006.
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Once the school meal standards have been considered, it is envisaged that the panel will consider how the standards could apply to other food and drink on school premises, such as the vending machines and tuck shops to which my hon. Friend referred.

My hon. Friend will know that the decentralised system of education funding means that the LEAs receive an amount based on need in their area to deal with this subject. They then agree with their schools how funding is to be delegated. Funding for school meals is delegated to all secondary schools, with primary and special schools being able to opt for delegation. Where a school has a delegated budget for meals the governing body takes on responsibility for their provision. That includes providing free school meals to pupils, providing for paid meals where requested, complying with the requirements of the nutritional standards for schools lunches and deciding on the ingredient content and cost of the school meal. That system allows schools to purchase a school meals service that best meets the needs of the school and its pupils. However, we have decided that additional funding is needed, to which my hon. Friend also referred, to help LEAs and schools make the necessary changes that we want to see.

Over the next three years, commencing early in the autumn term, £220 million will be allocated by direct grants to LEAs and schools. In each of the three years 2005–06 to 2007–08, £30 million will be given in grants to schools. That funding will be paid to all maintained schools by local authorities on the basis of a formula determined by the Government. It will not be ring-fenced, but it is intended to help to meet transitional costs for schools in developing and improving their whole school approach to food. It might include, for example, reviewing the whole school approach; reviewing meals provision, particularly in the light of the new nutritional standards; retraining school meals staff; or preparing for healthy schools accreditation.

A further £130 million over that three-year period will be paid in grants to LEAs. That funding will be ring-fenced for improving the quality of school meals and other food provided by schools. Funding will be available to all LEAs to support schools. The first call on that money will be transition funding to help schools provide meals with ingredients costing 50p or more in primary schools and 60p or more in secondary schools. Further details of the distribution of both grants will be announced in due course. Both grants are intended to provide transitional funding and will be available over that three-year period.

That additional funding will not, of course, change the way that the usual allocation of funding for the purposes of providing school meals will be decided. But we also know that financial support alone may not be sufficient to help schools and LEAs to make the necessary improvements. My hon. Friend referred to someone in his constituency who wanted independent advice about nutritional standards.

The school food trust currently exists in an interim form and will be key to achieving those improvements. It has an interim board and my hon. Friend referred to   some of its personnel. It remains for us fully to   determine its remit, which will include providing   independent support, advice and practical
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encouragement to local authorities, schools and parents to improve the standard of school meals, and working with parents to improve meals. It is intended that the food industry, caterers, nutritionists and food interest groups will be involved in developing the trust and that those with an interest in school food will be represented on the board, which will receive some £15 million in funding from my Department over three years. In addition, the Big Lottery Fund has decided to allocate up to £45 million to support healthy eating projects and initiatives for children, parents and their wider communities as part of a strategic programme to promote well-being.

Parental involvement is essential. We know that the most effective food policies involve the entire school community—teachers, school caterers, governors, pupils and parents. Parents have a major part to play and we want them to work constructively with schools and the school food trust to help to improve their school meals service. A dedicated toolkit will be available this autumn to help parents identify how they can become involved.

My hon. Friend made some fond references to school catering staff—the dinner ladies at his school were obviously extremely good. We will introduce funding, support and guidance for school catering staff, but ensuring that catering staff are well-trained is also essential. A key feature of the Government's proposals for remodelling the school work force is to improve training, development and career progression for all support staff, including school catering staff. The Government want support staff to have greater opportunities to work in the kinds of roles that they want and to have training opportunities to enable them to carry out their expected roles.

To support those measures, the Government have invested considerable funds in the training and development of support staff including, for example, in the standards fund and the higher level teaching assistant programme. We have also worked with key partners to encourage the development of training programmes and qualifications for support staff and provided moneys, including through the Learning and Skills Council, for the development of generic vocational qualifications at level 2 for all support staff.

My hon. Friend referred to the vocationally related qualification that we have decided to develop. A study on secondary school meals recommended that a basic qualification should be developed, including the basic aspects of nutrition, which would give school cooks the knowledge and skills to deliver a healthier school meals service. It will allow the learner to provide a range of healthier food and meals in a school dining room and to develop ideas and material to promote healthier food choices to the children through the school meals service. I hope that my hon. Friend supports those developments, and judging from what he said earlier, I think that he will.

Schools will be able to use some of the additional £220 million to help with the costs of training for school catering staff. Pay and contractual arrangements for support staff are currently determined locally to suit local circumstances. That may include any arrangements schools and LEAs make for releasing support staff to undergo training and development, and the decision whether support staff are paid for such
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training. We strongly encourage schools and LEAs to consider releasing support staff, as many already do, to attend training and development, especially where it is job-related, and to pay staff as if they are undertaking their normal duties.

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