Every child in infant school will receive a free school lunch, Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has announced at the Liberal Democrat's annual conference in Glasgow.
All infant school pupils will receive a hot, healthy school lunch, in what will be seen as a radical measure. The policy will save families about £400 a year per child while its proponents claim it will help to raise school standards and cut the attainment gap.
The Coalition will fund schools in England to provide every child in reception, year 1 and year 2 with a hot, healthy meal at lunchtime. Over the course of a year the average family spends £400 on school lunches per child.
Universal free school meals for primary school pupils were a key recommendation in a recent review of school food produced independently for the Department for Education. The review found that, in pilots where all children had been given a free school dinner, students were academically months ahead of their peers elsewhere and more likely to eat vegetables at lunchtime.
At the same time, the Coalition will extend free school meals to disadvantaged students in further education and sixth form colleges. Free school meals are currently available only for eligible students at school sixth forms.
Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg said:
"My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day.
"Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze. Over the course of a year families spend over £400 lunch money for each child. I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families.
"We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits.
"Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society."
But Stephen Twigg MP, Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, claimed Lib Dems could not be trusted to deliver:
"After three years of broken promises and empty words, people have come to judge the Lib Dems on what they do, not what they say. They talk about helping families but they will have taken up to £7 billion a year of support away from children by 2015; they talk about helping with school meals after supporting the Tories in scrapping Labour's plans to extend free meals for school kids. You can't trust a word the Lib Dems say."
The School Food Plan, published by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent in July this year, recommended that the Government embark on a phased roll out of free school meals for all children in all primary schools. The School Food Plan presented evidence that this would lead to positive improvements in health, attainment and social cohesion, and help families with the cost of living:
- The average school meal costs parents £437 per child per year;
- Many children on low incomes are not eligible for free school meals - approximately four in ten children living in poverty.
In pilot areas:
- Students were found to be on average two months ahead of their peers elsewhere;
- Between 3% and 5% more children reached target levels in maths and English at Key Stage 1, a bigger improvement than the 3.6% boost that followed the introduction of a compulsory literacy hour in 1998;
- Academic improvements were most marked among children from less affluent families;
- There was a 23% increase in the number of children eating vegetables at lunch and an 18% drop in those eating crisps.