Conor Ryan considers the evidence behind moves to provide universal free school meals for 5-7 year-olds.
When I worked for Tony Blair, I had the chance to work with Jamie Oliver in helping deliver his great plans to transform the quality of school lunches.
The combination of tough nutritional standards, better kitchens and trained chefs in schools helped bring about a radical improvement in the quality of what young people were eating. We also laid the groundwork for teaching cooking in schools, not just talking about the texture of food. The School Food Trust – now the Children’s Food Trust – helped promote the changes.
So, I have no illusions about the importance of nutritious food for children of all ages. It has to be part of the drive to improve diet and reduce obesity in schools. And I applaud the moves made by Michael Gove to improve school meals, following the report by theLeon restaurant founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent.
But to what extent can we make greater claims about the value of school meals? Many heads have seen it as important to provide good lunches to keep children in school at lunchtime. There is no doubt that an orderly canteen – and I’ve eaten in my share of good school dining halls in recent years – is often a mark of good school discipline and effective leadership.
More recently, there has been a growing movement towards providing free school meals for all children regardless of income. Last week, the Liberal Democrats announced that this would be universal entitlement for all 5-7 year-olds from September 2014, with a £600m a year price tag.
In making the announcement, ministers cited a research study by NatCen based on trials between 2009 and 2011 in Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton which showed that where there was a universal entitlement in primary schools, there was improved take up of meals among all pupils, more hot meals were eaten, and fewer crisps were consumed.
Perhaps more interestingly, Natcen concluded that “the universal pilot had a significant positive impact on attainment for primary school pupils at Key Stages 1 and 2, with pupils in the pilot areas making between four and eight weeks’ more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas.” Moreover, these improvements were strongest among those from less affluent families.
Critics of the universal entitlement have questioned how these improvements materialised because, perhaps surprisingly, there was no improvement in pupil absence levels in the pilot schools. But supporters argue that this means that the greater productivity must be down to the daily dinners.
What has perhaps been less remarked upon is the extent to which the pilots – again, not surprisingly – had substantial deadweight costs. They were subsidising parents who had previously been happy to pay for school meals, as well as attracting new diners. The cost was £220 per primary pupil each year.
Natcen says this deadweight amounted to £3.8 million in one area (around one-third of the total running costs), £7.6 million in the other (just under half of the total running costs). Applied to a national programme, this could mean £250m of £600m in deadweight costs. Again, that may be a price worth paying if it delivers good results.
So, what of the Toolkit test – how does the free meals policy score compared to other interventions? Natcen notes on page 146 of its report that the universal entitlement was better value than reading recovery programmes but poorer value than the daily literacy hour or than Jamie Oliver’s Feed Me Better campaign.
A comparison with interventions highlighted in the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit suggests that good pupil feedback could add 8 months learning with costs of up to £170 per pupil per year while peer to peer tutoring could add 6 months at similar cost. However, one to one tuition could cost £1200 per pupil and add 5 months’ learning.
The truth is that universal school meals may make some impact on attainment, but seem likely to do a lot more for diet and socialisation in school. Going back to Jamie’s crusade, I couldn’t argue against that, so long as the kitchens are in place and the school chefs trained.
But there is always going to be a challenge ensuring that limited funds are spent as effectively as possible. And the challenge is as great in Whitehall as it is at the chalkface.