Some parents and school leaders believe free lunches are having positive effects on the lives of infants and their families, but the costs to schools may become unsustainable unless the government keeps an eye on how much money it provides, writes Peter Sellen, who co-authored the EPI’s new report

In September 2013, the previous coalition government announced that every infant pupil (reception, year 1 and year 2) would be entitled to a free school lunch from September 2014.  During the 2017 general election campaign, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledged to extend the offer of free school meals (FSMs) to all primary pupils. The Conservatives wanted to drop the policy in favour of more subsidy for breakfast clubs, which has not been pursued since the election.

The Education Policy Institute has today published research into universal infant free school meals (UIFSM), exploring the initial effects on take-up of school meals and, informed by surveys and school visits, how the policy has been implemented.

Although schools had relatively little notice, evidence shows that they are nevertheless delivering the meals and that many more infants are now opting for a school dinner over packed lunches – based on ONS data, it is estimated that take-up on a given school day increased from 38% in 2013-14 to 80% in 2015-16.

This has caused significant changes in the way schools provide food. Our fieldwork uncovered alterations to timetabling, widespread investment in kitchens and dining areas, and more catering staff. Some have found the transition difficult, often as a result of context – schools short on dining space have found it harder to accommodate the increase, and there have been impacts on timetables and the number of teachers required to help at lunch. However, there is no evidence that small schools have found it harder, and there are likely to be lessons that some schools can learn from others. Interestingly, according to Department for Education data, schools with better Ofsted inspection outcomes have more pupils eating lunch.

There are indications that these changes are happening

The original aims of the policy included getting more children sitting down for a hot meal together, helping families with the costs of living, and teaching better eating habits earlier on. There are indications that these changes are happening. On average, parents are no longer making packed lunches, with reported savings of around £10 per week; 56% of parents surveyed thought their child was more likely to try new foods following UIFSM’s introduction. 41% of school leaders also thought that the profile of healthy eating had improved in their school due to the policy.

It is too early to say whether UIFSM has had a significant impact on health and nutrition, and it will be difficult to untangle its effects from other developments, including revisions to the school food standards and other actions arising from the school food plan. Interestingly, in some schools, UIFSM was seen as a catalyst for wider change, or a development that supported existing ambitions to improve food provision and health. Some parents, school leaders and teachers have seen improvements in readiness for learning and concentration, but most did not observe big changes or attribute them solely to UIFSM.

It’s important to keep in mind that while we have found evidence the £2.30 rate looks to have been fairly well aligned with delivery costs so far, this is unlikely to have covered wider implementation costs for schools, and over the next few years inflation could easily catch up with it. The government therefore needs to monitor the financial impact of the policy on schools, to ensure that UIFSM does not pose a financial risk.

Some school leaders have reported an effect on pupil premium registration rates for infants, as parents no longer face an immediate financial incentive to declare eligibility. This could mean that the pupil premium grant is targeted less effectively, and that some children miss out on interventions that would benefit them. In its recent consultation on eligibility for free school meals under universal credit, the DfE said it would give schools further guidance and template letters to help engage parents, but stopped short of suggesting that automatic enrolment should be brought in. It will be important that it works with schools to find new ways of encouraging parents to register.

Therefore, on this and other practical delivery issues, our report today should hopefully help schools and the government to learn from the range of approaches taken.

Peter Sellen is the EPI’s chief economist and author of the UIFSM report