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Free School Meals

1 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about this subject, which is very close to my heart. From the start, I want to pay tribute to the Minister, who has played an important part in the campaign to highlight the importance of universal free school meals. She hosted a visit to Hull so that we could learn more about people's experiences of the school meals pilot there, which was prematurely and abruptly ended by the Liberal Democrats when they took over the council.

I am especially pleased that after much lobbying, it has to be said, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls), agreed to fund a free school meals pilot in three areas: Newham, Wolverhampton and County Durham. I thank also my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) for the role that she played in getting that free school meals pilot. Our campaign was also helpfully supported by the GMB union, Unison and the End Child Poverty alliance.

My mother was a school cook, so I have always believed that the quality of what children eat at school is extremely important. I have watched, however, as over the decades, particularly the 1980s and 1990s, successive cuts have led to more and more school kitchens closing and to a complete withdrawal of hot school meals in many areas. I instinctively thought that Britain was not doing enough to support school meals, but I got the jolt to do something about it in Parliament after I went to Sweden in 2006 and visited schools in which school meal provision was good quality, universal and free. It was after I returned from that trip that the serious lobbying for something similar to happen here began. That experience in Sweden was quite extraordinary. Teachers there were rather bemused that we were so interested in their free school meals, because they took them for granted. They said, "When children go to school, we provide a desk for them, somewhere to sit, a chair, books and stationery, so why wouldn't we provide food as well? They need that to learn just as much as they need a desk."

Those of us who have been pressing the case for free school meals have been helped enormously by Jamie Oliver's school dinners campaign. His exposé of how little we spent on school meals, the variation in quality and the lack of nutrition in some packed lunches helped to raise the issue hugely and led to an increased investment in school meals and to new nutritional guidelines. The Government's response to Jamie Oliver's campaign was very welcome, but it was not enough. In most schools, including primary schools, only about half the children take school lunches. If Jamie Oliver is listening and if he would like to help us to extend the free school meals programme, his help would be very welcome.

Other factors have also helped to raise the profile of this issue. We know that when many children start school, they have not learned at home the social skill of eating a meal around a table or the practical skill of using a knife and fork. Childhood obesity is an increasing
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problem, so it is important that healthy eating be not only promoted but experienced at school. I was pleased when the Government announced the pilots, and simply delighted when Durham county council submitted a bid to be a pilot authority. David Williams, the director of children's services at Durham county council, and Councillor Claire Vasey, who is the portfolio holder for children's services, and their team, deserve much praise for putting the successful bid together and, more significantly perhaps, for identifying the resources to implement the project in Durham. I congratulate them on the successful celebration event that they held with Steve Cram this morning. But Phil Barclay, head of finance, deserves particular praise for the way in which the pilot has been implemented, so that a free school meal that meets high nutritional standards has been offered to each primary school child in the county since September, when the pilot began.

In the few weeks since the pilot began, the results have already been staggering. After the bid's success was announced on 1 May, the county had only four months to get kitchens ready to extend capacity in the system. That was achieved using a Department for Children, Schools and Families grant, money from the primary care trust and big contributions from schools, and in some cases dioceses, all of which were put together in a fund of £3 million to upgrade school kitchens. The lasting outcome has been that most schools now have modern, high-quality catering facilities.

What has been truly amazing about the pilot, however, is the take-up figures. Currently, 86 per cent. of children take up a school meal in the schools covered by the main county council contract, and the figure is 90 per cent. for those schools operating outside the contract, whereas last year, take-up was just 50 per cent. The county council is confident that even the current high figures will rise further. I am extremely fortunate because some schools in my constituency are operating at 100 per cent. take-up, which is truly extraordinary. Credit must be paid to Taylor Shaw, the main contractor, which has done well to concentrate mostly on the quality of the food being produced, and has also risen to the challenge of taking on more staff at very short notice.

For those who are not yet convinced of the benefits of free school meals-I am sure there are not many out there-I shall highlight a few of them. Throughout the pilot areas, children in our primary schools are receiving a hot, nutritious, free school meal at lunch time. Take-up is high. In addition to the nutritional benefits, and there are many, there is no longer any stigma in taking a free school meal, because all children have them. Even though the pilot has been running for only a few weeks, teachers are already reporting better concentration levels among pupils in the afternoon.

The economic benefits of free school meals are substantial for parents. That has been particularly important because the project has been launched in a period of economic downturn. Not having to pay for their children's school meals saves parents £8.50 a week per child. Many local parents have told me that the pilot has made all the difference to their family weathering the recession. Many families with two children in primary school are saving £633 a year.

Much of the food is sourced locally, so local businesses and farmers are also benefiting from the programme and, as I said, additional jobs have been created. We are
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all terribly concerned about climate change, so we should note that food miles are also being cut, with enormous environmental benefits. Lastly, children are learning social skills and how to eat healthily, which will hopefully help us to tackle obesity in future.

I want to take a minute or two to mention some recent statements from head teachers in the schools where the pilots are running. Pauline Warren is the head teacher at Sacriston junior school, which has 175 children on roll, 154 of whom are having free school meals. Before the pilot was introduced they served only 58 hot meals. She has said that everyone at the school is very enthusiastic and positive; they all think it is a wonderful idea. She said that it is good that children can try the food to see whether they like it before asking for a full helping, and that lunch times are now a more sociable event, with the children all having the same meals and sitting down together.

Judith Hodgson, the head teacher of Witton Gilbert primary school, said her school has 100 per cent. take-up and no packed lunches coming in. Interestingly, they have clean plate awards, and because there is a competition, children encourage each other to eat up all their dinner because tables can also get prizes. That is a really good addition to the pilot, and one that we had not thought of before. Judith Hodgson reports very positive comments from the children and their parents. The children say they very much enjoy the meals, and the school says that the cook is absolutely fabulous and has coped extremely well in getting to grips with the new kitchen, and that everything is working smoothly. Everyone from lunch time supervisors to staff and pupils are now converts. They very much like the new system. She says that the really good thing is that children are eating a healthy meal at lunch time, and many teachers are doing so too.

We need the scheme to continue. I know that some people will say we need to wait for the results of the evaluation. It is a great pity that we did not get the Hull evaluation before the Liberal Democrats cut the scheme there. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will join me, even at this early stage, in pressing the Chancellor to make money available so that local authorities that wish to bid into a fund to extend and continue that programme can do so. I know that this is not a good time to be asking for more money, with expected savings on the way or savage cuts, depending on whom one talks to. It is probably too much to ask for the £1 billion needed to extend the programme to all local authorities, but at least having a fund that would allow local authorities to bid for some money would be a start.

We know that the Government must do more to tackle child poverty, and I know that Ministers are committed to that, but I think they have overlooked to a large extent the role that free school meals could play in an anti-poverty programme. They could be a very effective measure in helping to tackle child poverty. Extending free school meals is supported by the End Child Poverty alliance, and I am pleased about its support. In particular, it backed the case for extending the programme to those in receipt of child tax credits. That might be a start, so I would like the Government to look at that. However, the universality of the system as it operates in the pilot areas is the key to its success, and I hope the Minister agrees. I hope she will join me in pressing the Chancellor to extend the programme to other local authorities and
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beyond the time frame currently allowed in the pilot areas, so that all the parents in my constituency, and in others, who have so warmly welcomed the programme will know that it has a sound future.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) on securing the debate. She mentioned that she visited my constituency a while ago to look at the experience in Hull after a far-sighted Labour council decided to have free school meals in its primary schools and special schools for three years, to be evaluated by Professor Colquhoun of Hull university. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the pilot was cut short because of the short-sightedness of the Liberal Democrat council that came in and abandoned the project. It is unfortunate that we do not have that evidence to look at, but I will talk a little about the pilots we do have now, and hopefully we can draw evidence from their experience.

I, too, visited Sweden last month and spoke to school students about school meals. I concur with my hon. Friend's comments about school meals there-all children take them and the meal is a very natural part of the school day.

One of the most important lessons we can teach our young people is how to look after themselves and maintain a healthy lifestyle. A large part of that depends on eating a healthy diet, and the consequences of not having a healthy diet are evident. We know that an unbalanced diet directly affects not only children's school work, but their behaviour in the classroom and at home. Currently, 1.5 million children in the UK are overweight or obese, which means they are in danger of developing serious medical conditions later in life, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We must ensure that our young people know the value of eating healthy food and choose to eat a sensible and balanced diet. My Department is taking steps to ensure that healthy school lunches are a cornerstone of our education system.

Generally, the Labour Government have recognised the importance of improving school food. That is why we have backed significant investment-£650 million between 2005 and 2011-to help support the cost of healthy school lunches, to help build or refurbish kitchens and dining facilities for the excellent catering staff around the country and to better support the development of training centres for the school food work force.

We recently introduced tougher nutritional standards for school food, which will ensure that all primary, secondary and special school pupils have access to a balanced meal, including lots of vegetables, salad and fruit. It is also worth mentioning that my Department, working with the Department of Health, has schemes to ensure that at key stage 1 we have fresh fruit in our primary schools, and many schools also operate breakfast clubs to help give children access to good, healthy food throughout the day.

With regard to the free school meals pilots, as my hon. Friend will know, this September my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and
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Families launched our two-year free school meals pilots in Durham, Wolverhampton and Newham. Those pilots, backed up by £20 million of funding from my Department and the Department of Health, offer free, nutritionally balanced meals to all primary students in Durham and Newham. In Wolverhampton we are testing extending the eligibility rules for pupils whose parents receive working tax credits and have an annual income of up to £16,040. I recognise what my hon. Friend says about the tax credit system, and I hope that the experience in Wolverhampton will let us make a decision at the end of the pilot to see whether there has been an effect on take-up.

When I visited the launch of the pilot in Newham with the Secretary of State in early September, it was clear what an impact the meals were already having on the children and their parents. Just yesterday, I was in Wolverhampton to see for myself a pilot scheme in a secondary school, and take-up there was increasing.

In both Newham and Wolverhampton, there are positive attitudes to the pilots and a keen interest in them. That interest is shared by many local authorities who applied to take part in the pilot projects, and it is important to note that local authorities already have the power to innovate and introduce free school meals in their area, if they so wish. I understand that under pressure from a Labour budget motion, Islington council is about to do that. I am extremely pleased that my hon. Friend's constituency of City of Durham is taking part, and I ask her to pass on my congratulations to everyone who has been involved in ensuring that the pilot started on time.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Would my hon. Friend find it helpful to visit my constituency, in particular some of the schools that have 100 per cent. take-up, to see how effective free school meals are locally?

Ms Johnson: I am delighted to receive that invitation. Actually, I was about to say that having visited Newham and Wolverhampton, I would be pleased to go and see for myself some of the primary schools in Durham and talk to the teachers and pupils to find out what they think about the meals.

We started the pilots because we wanted a robust and independent evaluation of the benefits to children of eating free school meals. We wanted to see whether having a free healthy meal would reduce childhood obesity and change eating habits at home, and whether school standards would rise. That information will lead us to a decision about the value for money in extending the project. The design of the pilots focuses on encouraging healthy eating habits in children from a young age-in primary school-and throughout their time at school, so that they are not tempted to eat junk food by the time they reach secondary school.

I want to speak generally about the uptake of free school meals. As my hon. Friend knows, the key is that children and parents are fully behind the meals, and that the school is actively promoting healthy food and the benefits of a school lunch. There is clear evidence that although most children who are eligible for free school meals take school lunch, there are still too many who do not. Figures from the January 2009 annual schools census show that 16 per cent. of nursery and primary school pupils are known to be eligible for the
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meals but only 13.6 per cent. take them up, and 13.4 per cent. of secondary school pupils are known to be eligible but only 10.3 per cent. take them up. It is vital that schools work with their local authorities and the School Food Trust to ensure that those who are eligible for free school meals know that they are.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the reasons why children do not take up free school meals is that they feel there is a stigma attached to them? Unfortunately, too many schools still single out in some way those who are having free school meals as different from the others. What is so important about the pilots is that free school meals are universal-everybody has them-and that is why we have seen such an extraordinary rise in the take-up figures.

Ms Johnson: That was clear from my experience in my constituency of Kingston upon Hull, North. When there were free school meals in primary schools, that was exactly what parents and teachers were saying to me. The stigma attached to them in the past had gone, and that will be an important part of our evaluation of the success of the pilots in Durham and Newham.

In the pilots, we obviously focused on areas of the country with deprivation and low incomes, because we felt that those areas were most likely to benefit from the extension of free school meals. As my hon. Friend said, they are a great way of putting money back into the pockets of the hardest hit in the current recession and of improving children's health and fitness. However, we recognise that not all children in the pilots will be from low-income families. We want to improve the health and educational benefits for all children, not just those from a low-income background. Not all children who can afford school meals eat them, so it is right that the pilots test to see whether offering free school meals helps children across a spectrum of families.

On the early evidence about the uptake of meals, as my hon. Friend said, the pilots have been in operation only since September, but already positive feedback is being received in local areas. As she explained, average school lunch take-up is estimated to be about 80 per cent. in Durham, and I understand that around 10 schools are achieving take-up of 100 per cent., compared with around 49 per cent. before the pilot started.

Opposition Members raised objections at the start of the pilots that many of the areas would not be ready for them because of the lack of kitchens. It is clear to me, from my hon. Friend's experience in Durham and from the statistics, that those objections were unjustified.

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Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does my hon. Friend accept that my local authority did an amazing job in getting a partnership together to put money into school kitchens? It was far-sighted of the authority to involve the primary care trust, the schools themselves and the diocese, because they all have an interest in children's health.

Ms Johnson: That is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the local authority, the diocese and the PCT. They are all key players in ensuring that we can deliver healthy school meals for our pupils.

There are excellent signs that children and families think that the meals are worth having. My hon. Friend should take credit for that, as she fought hard to get a free school meals pilot. I am pleased indeed that one of them is in Durham. As I said earlier, I am very much looking forward to visiting Durham, hopefully later this year.

I shall turn to the issues my hon. Friend outlined on the next steps for the pilots. I would like to be clear at this stage that we are not making any decisions about future roll-out. We shall test each pilot throughout its two-year process and a full evaluation will be carried out by the National Centre for Social Research. The evaluation will determine whether the additional benefits resulting from the pilot offer value for money in terms of costs to schools, and it will also determine whether the current eligibility rules are right.

In closing, I again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I believe that we can all agree that the health of our students is of the utmost importance. I am glad that we are taking steps towards a healthier lifestyle for all our pupils and students-steps that are already getting a positive reaction. It is important to monitor the pilots closely and to ensure that a full evaluation is made at the end of the two years. We need to keep good food for our children and young people high up on the agenda.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Would it make sense to complete the evaluation before the end of the two-year pilots? If local authorities are not given a signal early on about whether their scheme will continue, it could be put in jeopardy.

Ms Johnson: As Minister with responsibilities for school food, it is my intention to keep a careful eye on evaluation during the two years, and we shall use it as effectively as we can in discussions with local authorities. I look forward to working closely with my hon. Friend on the issue as we continue to monitor the success of the pilots.

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