Children in reception, year 1 and year 2 will be given free school meals, regardless of means testing.
The change will save parents, on average, £400 per year per child. It will apply to 1.4 million children in English primary schools and will come into effect in September 2014.
Currently, children qualify for free school meals if their parents earn less than a total of £16,000 per year. Of those who are currently entitled, take-up is around 70%.
The plans for free school dinner plans are a watered down version of what is already happening in some Labour-run London boroughs: Newham, Islington and Southwark.
Southwark’s Labour leader, Peter John, tweeted that the Lib Dems previously opposed free school meals for all. He said: “Where Southwark Labour leads others follow!”
But Nick Clegg used these boroughs as evidence that free school meals work in practice: claiming that they provide a respite for low-to-middle income families.
The Children’s Society has long been lobbying for a change in school meals policy. It says: “Free school meals are a crucial entitlement for families living in poverty. These meals help to ensure that children from the lowest-income families receive warm, nutritious food in the middle of the day. More than half of all school-age children living in poverty aren’t getting free school meals. These children may not be eating a single nutritious meal all day.”
The working poor is who Clegg thinks will most benefit from this scheme. There are an estimated 1.2 million children living in poverty but are ineligible for free school meals because their parents don’t earn less than £16,000 a year. This scheme will impact 200,000 of those – the ones who are in reception and key stage 1.
Free school meals for all pupils was one of the recommendations by two of the founders of chain restaurant, Leon, who reviewed school food for the Department of Education. Their report said that packed lunches were less nutritious than a cooked meal and that giving all children a free lunch would raise academic standards.
We asked mums on Facebook what they thought. A number were worried about the impact it might have on packed lunches. Claire Brown said: “In principle it’s a great idea but my daughter has unusual food allergies, I worry about the school policing her contact with the foods she shouldn’t be having and also the quality of the food given and actually eaten.”
But, under the new policy, there are no plans to ban packed lunches.
Mr 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… I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families.”
On our Facebook page, mum Gemma Cottam backed the scheme: “I think it’s a very good idea. I think it’s important they get a good meal down them at dinner. I’d add the money saved to my weekly food shop or use it towards bits my children need like clothes.”
Critics to the scheme say that it should extend further than the first three years. Others question whether it is fair that wealthy parents should be entitled to free meals under the same scheme and think the money should be directed somewhere else: child benefit, for example, which has been cut for some families.
Mark Littlewood, director general at the Institute of Economic Affairs, told the Independent: “This is an enormously bad use of public money. Not unreasonably, the Government already ensures that those in need have access to free school meals, so it beggars belief that we are now going to see a policy instated which will subsidise the children of affluent families.”
But many children’s charities are happy about the move. Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children said: “Providing a nutritious, hot lunch for all infants in primary school promotes positive eating habits and helps to ensure that children are able to concentrate and perform well in the classroom. It should also get over the stigmatisation that prevented hundreds of thousands of eligible families claiming in the past – a particular problem in some of the poorest, inner city areas of England.”
The move has been called a “coalition trade-off”, the Lib Dems gave the go-ahead for Conservatives to announce a tax-break for married couples, which could be worth £3 a week. In return, the Conservatives are said to have allowed the Lib Dems to roll out their free school meals scheme.