Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:00 pm on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham 1:00 pm, 20th October 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about this subject, which is very close to my heart. From the start, I want to pay tribute to the Minister, who has played an important part in the campaign to highlight the importance of universal free school meals. She hosted a visit to Hull so that we could learn more about people's experiences of the school meals pilot there, which was prematurely and abruptly ended by the Liberal Democrats when they took over the council.

I am especially pleased that after much lobbying, it has to be said, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my right hon. Friend Ed Balls, agreed to fund a free school meals pilot in three areas: Newham, Wolverhampton and County Durham. I thank also my hon. Friend Mrs. Hodgson for the role that she played in getting that free school meals pilot. Our campaign was also helpfully supported by the GMB union, Unison and the End Child Poverty alliance.

My mother was a school cook, so I have always believed that the quality of what children eat at school is extremely important. I have watched, however, as over the decades, particularly the 1980s and 1990s, successive cuts have led to more and more school kitchens closing and to a complete withdrawal of hot school meals in many areas. I instinctively thought that Britain was not doing enough to support school meals, but I got the jolt to do something about it in Parliament after I went to Sweden in 2006 and visited schools in which school meal provision was good quality, universal and free. It was after I returned from that trip that the serious lobbying for something similar to happen here began. That experience in Sweden was quite extraordinary. Teachers there were rather bemused that we were so interested in their free school meals, because they took them for granted. They said, "When children go to school, we provide a desk for them, somewhere to sit, a chair, books and stationery, so why wouldn't we provide food as well? They need that to learn just as much as they need a desk."

Those of us who have been pressing the case for free school meals have been helped enormously by Jamie Oliver's school dinners campaign. His exposé of how little we spent on school meals, the variation in quality and the lack of nutrition in some packed lunches helped to raise the issue hugely and led to an increased investment in school meals and to new nutritional guidelines. The Government's response to Jamie Oliver's campaign was very welcome, but it was not enough. In most schools, including primary schools, only about half the children take school lunches. If Jamie Oliver is listening and if he would like to help us to extend the free school meals programme, his help would be very welcome.

Other factors have also helped to raise the profile of this issue. We know that when many children start school, they have not learned at home the social skill of eating a meal around a table or the practical skill of using a knife and fork. Childhood obesity is an increasing problem, so it is important that healthy eating be not only promoted but experienced at school. I was pleased when the Government announced the pilots, and simply delighted when Durham county council submitted a bid to be a pilot authority. David Williams, the director of children's services at Durham county council, and Councillor Claire Vasey, who is the portfolio holder for children's services, and their team, deserve much praise for putting the successful bid together and, more significantly perhaps, for identifying the resources to implement the project in Durham. I congratulate them on the successful celebration event that they held with Steve Cram this morning. But Phil Barclay, head of finance, deserves particular praise for the way in which the pilot has been implemented, so that a free school meal that meets high nutritional standards has been offered to each primary school child in the county since September, when the pilot began.

In the few weeks since the pilot began, the results have already been staggering. After the bid's success was announced on 1 May, the county had only four months to get kitchens ready to extend capacity in the system. That was achieved using a Department for Children, Schools and Families grant, money from the primary care trust and big contributions from schools, and in some cases dioceses, all of which were put together in a fund of £3 million to upgrade school kitchens. The lasting outcome has been that most schools now have modern, high-quality catering facilities.

What has been truly amazing about the pilot, however, is the take-up figures. Currently, 86 per cent. of children take up a school meal in the schools covered by the main county council contract, and the figure is 90 per cent. for those schools operating outside the contract, whereas last year, take-up was just 50 per cent. The county council is confident that even the current high figures will rise further. I am extremely fortunate because some schools in my constituency are operating at 100 per cent. take-up, which is truly extraordinary. Credit must be paid to Taylor Shaw, the main contractor, which has done well to concentrate mostly on the quality of the food being produced, and has also risen to the challenge of taking on more staff at very short notice.

For those who are not yet convinced of the benefits of free school meals-I am sure there are not many out there-I shall highlight a few of them. Throughout the pilot areas, children in our primary schools are receiving a hot, nutritious, free school meal at lunch time. Take-up is high. In addition to the nutritional benefits, and there are many, there is no longer any stigma in taking a free school meal, because all children have them. Even though the pilot has been running for only a few weeks, teachers are already reporting better concentration levels among pupils in the afternoon.

The economic benefits of free school meals are substantial for parents. That has been particularly important because the project has been launched in a period of economic downturn. Not having to pay for their children's school meals saves parents £8.50 a week per child. Many local parents have told me that the pilot has made all the difference to their family weathering the recession. Many families with two children in primary school are saving £633 a year.

Much of the food is sourced locally, so local businesses and farmers are also benefiting from the programme and, as I said, additional jobs have been created. We are all terribly concerned about climate change, so we should note that food miles are also being cut, with enormous environmental benefits. Lastly, children are learning social skills and how to eat healthily, which will hopefully help us to tackle obesity in future.

I want to take a minute or two to mention some recent statements from head teachers in the schools where the pilots are running. Pauline Warren is the head teacher at Sacriston junior school, which has 175 children on roll, 154 of whom are having free school meals. Before the pilot was introduced they served only 58 hot meals. She has said that everyone at the school is very enthusiastic and positive; they all think it is a wonderful idea. She said that it is good that children can try the food to see whether they like it before asking for a full helping, and that lunch times are now a more sociable event, with the children all having the same meals and sitting down together.

Judith Hodgson, the head teacher of Witton Gilbert primary school, said her school has 100 per cent. take-up and no packed lunches coming in. Interestingly, they have clean plate awards, and because there is a competition, children encourage each other to eat up all their dinner because tables can also get prizes. That is a really good addition to the pilot, and one that we had not thought of before. Judith Hodgson reports very positive comments from the children and their parents. The children say they very much enjoy the meals, and the school says that the cook is absolutely fabulous and has coped extremely well in getting to grips with the new kitchen, and that everything is working smoothly. Everyone from lunch time supervisors to staff and pupils are now converts. They very much like the new system. She says that the really good thing is that children are eating a healthy meal at lunch time, and many teachers are doing so too.

We need the scheme to continue. I know that some people will say we need to wait for the results of the evaluation. It is a great pity that we did not get the Hull evaluation before the Liberal Democrats cut the scheme there. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will join me, even at this early stage, in pressing the Chancellor to make money available so that local authorities that wish to bid into a fund to extend and continue that programme can do so. I know that this is not a good time to be asking for more money, with expected savings on the way or savage cuts, depending on whom one talks to. It is probably too much to ask for the £1 billion needed to extend the programme to all local authorities, but at least having a fund that would allow local authorities to bid for some money would be a start.

We know that the Government must do more to tackle child poverty, and I know that Ministers are committed to that, but I think they have overlooked to a large extent the role that free school meals could play in an anti-poverty programme. They could be a very effective measure in helping to tackle child poverty. Extending free school meals is supported by the End Child Poverty alliance, and I am pleased about its support. In particular, it backed the case for extending the programme to those in receipt of child tax credits. That might be a start, so I would like the Government to look at that. However, the universality of the system as it operates in the pilot areas is the key to its success, and I hope the Minister agrees. I hope she will join me in pressing the Chancellor to extend the programme to other local authorities and beyond the time frame currently allowed in the pilot areas, so that all the parents in my constituency, and in others, who have so warmly welcomed the programme will know that it has a sound future.