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Evaluation of the Free School Meals Pilot

Published: January 2013


We evaluated the Free School Meals (FSM) pilot run in three local authorities to test two different approaches to extending FSM provision:

  • a ‘universal’ offer in Newham and Durham, where all primary school children were offered free school meals;
  • an ‘extended entitlement’ in Wolverhampton, to pupils in primary and secondary schools whose families were on Working Tax Credit and earned less than £16,000.


Impact on take-up of free school meals

  • Most pupils in the universal pilot areas took up the offer of free school meals. Around nine in 10 primary school pupils were taking at least one school meal per week by the end of the pilot compared with around six in 10 similar pupils in matched comparison areas.
  • The extended entitlement pilot did not significantly increase take-up of school meals among secondary school pupils.

Impact on attainment

  • The universal pilot had a significant positive impact on attainment for primary school pupils at Key Stages 1 and 2 (ages 7 and 11). Pupils in the pilot areas made between four and eight weeks’ more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas.
  • The strongest improvements in attainment tended to be among pupils from less affluent families and among those with lower prior attainment. However, the effects for different types of pupils were not always significantly different from one another.
  • By contrast, the extended entitlement pilot did not significantly affect attainment for either primary or secondary school pupils.

Impact on diet

  • In the universal pilot areas, the increased take-up of school meals led to a shift in the types of food that pupils ate at lunchtime: more vegetables, rice, potatoes, chips, water ; less sandwiches, fruit, crisps, soft drinks
  • Despite the changes in lunchtime food consumption, the universal pilot had few significant impacts on overall consumption of different types of food although children were less likely to eat crisps daily
  • The extended entitlement pilot had little impact on children’s diet and eating habits.


Data from the National Pupil Database; information on individual pupils' take-up of school meals; qualitative case studies; longitudinal face-to-face survey of pupils and parents; telephone interviews with school catering managers.

Read the report