The offer of free school meals for all infant pupils in England was announced by Mr Clegg at last year’s Lib Dem conference, at a cost of £600million a year.
The initiative launched in September at the beginning of the school term. Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg said that children with packed lunches consisting of ‘a slice of white bread with some chocolate spread in it and a fizzy drink’ struggle to concentrate. He claims that providing lunch for every five to seven-year-old at England’s 16,500 primary schools will improve children’s concentration and consequently their academic attainment.
‘…giving a healthy hot meal at lunchtime is as, if not more, effective than many of the, say, literacy and numeracy initiatives which have been undertaken in the past in the classroom. It has a dramatic effect.’
It will also help parents struggling with the cost of food, saving even the best-off families an average of £437 a year per child.
Mr Clegg has said: ‘The evidence quite simply shows that this not only has a dramatic effect on those four in ten children who are in poverty but presently don’t receive free school meals, the evidence also shows it’s a great help to household budgets…It helps families save £400 per child for meal costs every year’
Schools not ready
But the policy has not been well received by everyone. Councils have complained that they had not received sufficient funds from the Department for Education (DfE) to expand kitchens and dining halls to implement the policy and schools were being forced to raid existing budgets to ensure the scheme went ahead.
The Local Government Association (LGA) conducted a survey of 75 councils and found that 47% had not received sufficient funds from the DfE to cover the full cost of the work they needed to do to ensure that schools in their area were equipped to provide universal free meals for infants.
The LGA estimated that councils without enough money for the scheme have had to find an estimated £488,000 on average to ensure that pupils will get the meals they will be entitled to.
Some authorities reported that if schools did not have enough money to prepare, money could be taken from general school funding intended for school repairs and maintenance.
To ensure they could offer the free lunches at the start of September. Some schools will have to give pupils packed lunches and others will use portable kitchens. Mr Clegg has been forced to announce an extra £150million to build and extend kitchens and work still continues in some schools on options for providing hot meals.