I visited a school this week that is a glowing example of a good school food culture. The headteacher has embraced all the opportunities provided by charities to enrich the food and nutrition curriculum with programmes to get the children at his school growing, cooking and sharing delicious food. He does this because he sees value in teaching children how to eat well so that they can concentrate in the classroom and leave school with the skills they need to live healthy lives.
He doesn’t do this to impress Ofsted. Which is just as well, as this week’s government food strategy policy paper has brushed over the recommendation that stated: “Cookery and nutrition lessons should be inspected with the same rigour as maths or English lessons”, preferring to “consider insights” from an Ofsted review of design and technology.
It’s difficult to get excited about this Defra publication when so many of Henry Dimbleby’s 2013 school food plan recommendations are merely being ‘considered’, ‘reviewed’ or ‘piloted’. All of the announcements around school food are rehashes of the commitments found in the levelling-up white paper, albeit with slightly more robust wording. It moves us from schools being ‘encouraged’ to publish a report on school food to school leaders and governors being ‘required’ to publish a school food vision on their websites.
That, alongside the FSA’s work with local authorities to monitor compliance with the school food standards, does show some progress towards the ambition set out in Dimbleby’s “What gets measured gets done”. But once again we’re in pilot phase, and proof will be in the pudding (with 50 per cent fruit content in line with the standards).
By far the most glaring omission from this strategy document is any government action on access to free school meals. Putting this in the context of the primary school visited this week, 35 per cent of its pupils qualify for free school meals and a further 15 per cent just miss out. These are children from working families who fail to qualify under the stringent eligibility criteria (earned household income of £7,400 before benefits), but whose parents struggle to pay for a lunch.
And that school isn’t unusual. Its cohort reflects Child Poverty Action Group’s finding that one-third of children living in poverty in England fail to qualify for a free school meal. To fail to respond to the pressures experienced by these families in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis shows not only a lack of compassion, but a government completely at odds with its own levelling-up agenda.
Like so many school leaders around the country, the headteacher at the school I visited will support families by paying for meals out of the school budget to avoid an influx of poor-quality packed lunches, stigmatisation of families who can’t afford to pay, and spiralling ‘dinner money debt’.
Let’s be clear: the need to reform school food funding and policy is urgent. Supported by Impact on Urban Health, School Food Matters joined forces with The Food Foundation and Bite Back 2030 to call for reform to tackle health inequalities and ensure that no child misses out on good nutrition at school. We were hopeful that the Defra response to the National Food Strategy would bring the good news that government would get behind Dimbleby’s recommendation to expand free school meal eligibility. But instead of the urgent action that’s needed right now, we are offered yet another review.
School Food Matters and its campaign partners, school leaders and our hard-working school caterers will use this disappointing government response as a launchpad for a noisy campaign as we lurch towards a general election. We know that the public supports an expansion of free school meals. So if we haven’t won the argument with ministers this time, there’s little doubt we will do so on the doorstep.