Ways to make sure infant free school meals serves up value for money. Part 1 of 4. Words by Paul Aagaard.


Restaurant style lunchtimes help improve readiness to learn.

It’s just over one year since Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) was first introduced and there have already been reports that the policy could be scrapped. David Cameron has said he is very proud of UIFSM and after the money spent on implementing the scheme, he is firmly committed to it.

So should the policy be cut by George Osborne as part of his spending review in November or not? It all boils down to value for money. The rational for giving all infants free school meals was based on pilot research that suggested they made between four to eight weeks more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas (PDF, 1.8 MB). If the policy does have such a positive impact on pupil progress and helps ensure less children end up being obese, then you could argue it is money well spent. In fact Diabetes UK, the National Obesity Forum and the British Medical Association feel, “with one in three children leaving primary school overweight or obese, ensuring a nutritionally balanced school lunch has never been so important.”[1] A free school meals policy could end up paying for itself many times and reduce the spiralling costs to the NHS of treating obesity and other diet-related illnesses.

But is this policy having a positive effect on improving progress and helping to reduce the number of children who are overweight?

I have identified four key problems that schools face which, if they aren’t tackled, will mean this won’t become a value for money policy. However, I firmly believe that UIFSM can improve readiness for learning, improve concentration and as a result, improve progress if my proposed evidence based solutions to these problems are adopted.

This first part of this series is all about getting the dining room right.

Getting the dining room right

The problem The solution
Dining room environment
If children end up queuing for a long time, they can’t sit with their friends and the dining room is noisy, the UIFSM policy will have no impact whatsoever on readiness for learning and progress because they are unlikely to eat it. Feeling rushed and friends not waiting for you to finish just leads to children dumping their meal in the bin irrespective of whether they actually want to eat the meal or not. As a result children will go back into afternoon classes talking about unresolved lunchtime incidents. That means lost curriculum time and that means children’s progress may actually get worse, not better! Sadly this is what’s happening in lots of schools.What headteachers are saying to me
I recently spoke to two headteachers both from East Sussex. One of them, who had just started as headteacher at a new school this academic year, said: “I decided to join the Y5 & Y6 queue for school dinners to see how long it would take to get served. It took me 20 minutes.” The other headteacher said she timed how long it took for a Midday Supervisor to notice a pupil who was patiently waiting with their hand up. It took 8 minutes.

Why the problem persists
So why do some school dining rooms end up becoming feeding stations where children are literally herded in and herded out again? There are two key reasons. Firstly, headteachers know all about good classroom provision and what teachers should and shouldn’t be doing. But they don’t have a clue about what good dining room provision looks like and what caterers should and shouldn’t be doing. Secondly, as and when a headteacher does decide to communicate with their school cook the response to making any changes is often – “we can’t do that or we haven’t got time or it will cost more money”. As a result the lunchtime problems persist and nothing gets changed.

Restaurant style lunchtimes
Schools have to create a dining room that children actually want to go to and not just some corridor to play. This will help improve school meal uptake and more importantly make sure most of them actually eat it.So how is this achieved? By creating a restaurant style lunchtime which, like any good restaurant, is conducive to both eating and socialising.

In the classroom children know what is expected of them, what they can and can’t do, who they will be sitting with and where. Although the dining room isn’t a classroom the same principles need to be applied. One of the evidence based ideas I have used for years is to create a series of set sittings where children sit with their friends on the same table each day. Knowing who you will be sitting with, where you are sitting and at what time immediately creates a much calmer environment and reduces noise because there is no rushing around trying to find your friends. This is particularly effective for those with special educational needs who thrive on routine. Just like the classroom the dining room needs rules such as waiting for your friends before leaving the dining room, and not being able to leave for at least 15 minutes to encourage fast eaters to socialise with slow eaters.

The impact on UIFSM
So how will these changes make UIFSM value for money? Firstly, it will improve readiness to learning because children are much less likely to go back into class and talk about unresolved lunchtime incidents. Secondly, no curriculum time will be lost because lessons aren’t disrupted so progress therefore should improve. And thirdly, school leaders won’t have to spend loads of time in the afternoon sorting out lunchtime problems.