Recently the DCSF has announced plans to extend free school meal provision in primary schools in England.  Local Education Authorities will be able to apply to the DCSF to fund the provision of free school meals in primary schools, in a series of pilots designed to assist the collection of research evidence on the relationship between school meals and health and educational performance.

This latest announcement follows on from pilots in three LEAs; Durham and Newham which are piloting the provision of free school meals for all primary school children; and Wolverhampton which is trialling extended eligibility for free school meals.

On making this announcement, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said:

“We know good health is vital if children are going to enjoy their childhood and achieve their full potential.  Eating a nutritious meal at lunchtime from a young age can make eating well a healthy habit for life.”

So, this announcement appears to mark a positive and welcome move.  It demonstrates concern with social welfare and minimising the effects of poverty, with the school as a means of compensating for society.  It signals an attempt to provide all children with a level playing field, so that at least children will be nourished in school even if they don’t get this at home.

It could almost be seen as radical, a move towards accepting a collective responsibility for children’s welfare, and a recognition that this is important for the health and well being of all children.

Except, providing free school meals isn’t new.  Back in the nineteenth century, even before schooling was finally made free and compulsory, Manchester provided free school meals for its poor children.

In the twentieth century, free school meal provision was extended, and free milk was provided for all children in the 1920’s.

Under the 1944 Education Act, Local Authorities were required to provide school meals to all who wanted them, and by 1947, following the election of a Labour Goverment, the full cost of providing school meals was met by the Government.  Two years later, a nominal fee was introduced for those not entitled to free meals.  By 1977, over 61% of pupils had a school meal (in fact the numbers had been declining).

The decline in school meals came with the election of a Conservative Government in 1979.   School meals were identified as one area to bear the brunt in cuts in public spending.  The 1980 Education Act, introduced by the Conservatives allowed Local Authorities to scrap the school meals service altogether.  The only provision was a basic service to children whose parents received certain benefits.

Under this Act, in the context of ‘rolling back the state’, the nutritional standards for school meals were also scrapped,  (school meals no longer needed to be wholesome and nutritious…in case you were wondering why Turkey Twizzlers were ever allowed on school premises).

In 1986, changes in benefit rules meant that children whose parents received family credit now had the price of a school meal included in their benefit.  Again, see this in a context of freedom of choice.  The state was not going to ensure that children, particularly those from poor homes were fed well at school.  Parents did not have to use this money to feed their children.

By 1995 then, the numbers of children taking free school meals had dropped to 45%.

The Labour Government  (not Jamie Oliver) reinstated nutritional standards in 2001.

Now, we continue to read about school meals, junk food in schools, and unhealthy packed lunches.  See the Guardian’s section on School Meals for more news coverage.

So, the move to provide children with a nutritious meal in school isn’t new, it is a sign of a civilised society. Yes there is more to do, but decent school meals don’t just happen, like the destruction of the School Meal service and the scrapping of nutritional standards didn’t just happen in 80’s.

CPAG has a fact sheet on School Meals available here.

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