Free school meals are in the news again as the Labour Party announces plans, if elected, to extend universal free entitlement to school meals to all primary school children, to be funded by charging VAT on private school fees. Labour’s announcement cited evidence of a link between universal entitlement and improved attainment. So, what does the evidence show?
A pilot scheme tested the idea of offering free school meals to all primary school children in two local authorities between 2009 and 2011 and NatCen carried out a robust evaluation of this in partnership with the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The impact of offering universal free school meals on take-up was dramatic – most pupils opted for them. Taking school meals altered the types of food that pupils ate, but most importantly, the study showed improvements in attainment. Pupils in the pilot areas made between four and eight weeks’ more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas where the pilot was not operating.
It was not clear from our evaluation what the mechanisms driving this improvement in attainment were. The pilot did not increase attendance, so attainment was not improved by children spending more time at school. More research into the link between school meals and attainment would therefore be welcome.
Criticism of universal entitlement has called it a ‘middle-class subsidy’. However, the pilots found that the universal offer improved take-up of school meals among less well-off pupils who would have been entitled to free school meals anyway. A third pilot run at the same time tested extending free school meals to lower-paid working families. The evaluation found that this approach did not improve take-up. Instead, pupils who would have met the extended criteria were more likely to take up school meals when they were made available to everyone. The evidence therefore suggests that the universal approach is a better way of reaching those who are likely to benefit the most.