The introduction of universal free school meals for infants this month means questions are being asked about their nutritional and monetary value. However solicitor, Jade Kent, asks a different thorny question about their content.
It’s an unusual question, but one that needs to be posed in an education system which now opens the door to an increasing number of unconventional institutions. More to the point, why seek to become a vegetarian school in the first place?
The first vegetarian school, St Christopher’s School in Hertfordshire, was established in 1915 to promote greater dialogue between children of different cultural backgrounds. Today, vegetarian schools and academies are often created in order to promote a specific set of values: religious, ethical or environmental. At a time when budgets remain under pressure – and when the cost of food weighs heavily on schools – the expense of sourcing meat can also make a vegetarian policy more attractive.
Whether or not a school is able to become vegetarian, depends on the type of school it is and when it was created. If the school is a local authority maintained school, special school or a pupil referral unit, The Education (Nutritional Standards and Requirements for School Food, England) Regulations 2007 apply.
Is it fair that
some schools can be vegetarian but others can’t?
The regulations refer to standards requiring that red meat be provided at least twice a week in primary schools and at least three times a week in secondary schools. Oily fish, such as salmon or mackerel, must be provided at least once every three weeks. Vegetarianism simply does not fit with these standards.
The position for academies and free schools is slightly different. Academies established between September 2008 and September 2010, as well as post-June 2014, must comply with the nutritional standards or risk being in breach of their funding agreements.
However, academies set up between October 2010 and May 2014 only have to refer to the standards as a guide; therefore, a vegetarian school could be possible.
The Department for Education is, however, constantly pushing for new academies and free schools to move over to new funding agreements, which oblige compliance with the standards.
So the ability for schools to become vegetarian may be reduced in the future.
Is it fair that some schools can be vegetarian but others can’t?
And if a vegetarian diet provides all the nutrients necessary for pupils, why should schools be obliged to comply with food standards that conflict with their ethos or beliefs?
Under the 2012 Equality Act, religion and a lack of religion are both protected characteristics. Imposing a situation, such as only serving vegetarian meals, on a non-religious child or parent because of a religious belief could contravene this Act.
A possible way for a school to avoid falling foul of the Equality Act is to draft a food policy that deals with the reasons why it wishes to offer vegetarian-only options – to reduce a child’s carbon footprint or to promote compassion, for example.
Interestingly, the regulations do not apply if there is a party to mark a religious or cultural occasion; at occasional fundraising events; if food is a reward for achievement; or for food used in teaching food preparation.
One final point to ponder: if a parent whose child is eligible for free school meals states they want a meal that is not vegetarian, how would a purely vegetarian school provide this? And would they be obliged to? Only time will tell.
As the legislation governing academies and free schools continues to change, this important issue is one we should all be monitoring.
Jade Kent is a solicitor in the project team at Michelmores LLP