A report that aims to evaluate the impact Universal Infant Free School Meals has been published. Commissioned by LACA and carried out by the Education Policy Institute, it highlights the promise of change yet evidence for yet more lengthy research, writes Morag Wilson.
When Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) was launched we knew that its impact would need to be evaluated if it was ever to be expanded to Key Stage 2 pupils and, dare one say it, beyond that. Never was an evaluation needed more than last June when the general election threatened the end to UIFSM – if we had the research to support the policy, would it ever have been part of the Conservative manifesto?
Who knows. But, LACA has picked up the baton and with considerable investment, commissioned the Education Policy Institute (EPI) to show the effects of UIFSM on children and the school catering service. The document includes fieldwork case studies, surveys with teachers, parents, school leaders and some school caterers, and references years of historical data to support the evidence, including assessments from the pilot government universal free school meal schemes.
It’s worth remembering the aim of the policy: to provide a hot, nutritional meal to every child aged 4-7, to teach healthier eating habits, save parents money, and improve academic attainment. The report touches on each of these points and highlights some key findings – some of which are positive and others not so conclusive.
For instance, school leaders have seen the profile of healthy eating raised in schools; over a third of teachers have seen improvement in concentration and attainment as a direct result of UIFSM; 30% of school leaders have seen improvements in the overall health of infant pupils since UIFSM was introduced; parents say their child is more likely to try new foods; and the policy is saving them 32 hours and £390 a year on average by not providing packed lunches and getting a free meal instead.
This is all great news and the report has been supported by the Department for Education (DfE) who, surprisingly, has never before publicly endorsed the UIFSM policy. It said: “Good nutrition is closely linked to attainment and this report illustrates how our free school meals programme – backed by £600m funding – is already benefiting 1.4m children across the country, whilst saving their families hundreds of pounds each year.
“We have supported schools by providing £184.5m capital funding to upgrade kitchen and dining facilities, as well as giving extra money to help smaller schools provide these meals.
“This is part of the government’s wider efforts to encourage children of all ages to eat good food that encourages healthy eating for life.”
What the report does show, however, is that a huge amount of further research is required to show the full impact of UIFSM. For a start, it’s impossible to show the health and attainment benefits of UIFSM in cold, hard facts without it being in place for a number of years; UIFSM will be four years old in September. It will also be difficult to show a direct link between health or attainment and UIFSM because of so many other factors that affect children. However, the EPI did make the effort of gathering anecdotal evidence to support this aim from teachers and school leaders.
Some of the findings are taken from a small sample, but the surveys and interviews with school leaders and parents can lead to firmer conclusions and provide a bit more insight into the policy. Public data also casts a light on the policy; it’s interesting to see that schools with a better Ofsted rating have higher numbers of pupils eating school meals (at 88.3%, 6 percentage points higher than Inadequate schools), suggesting that a ‘whole school approach’ to school food is, ultimately, what’s needed for UIFSM and school meals generally to be successful.
Thankfully, take-up of UIFSM is high. One can never expect 100% take-up, even if it is a free policy, but January 2017 census data puts the rate at 86.1%.
“It has to be seen as a successful policy because it meets the government’s target and exceeds it,” says Tim Blowers, chair of LACA and head of county catering service at Derbyshire County Council. “To me, that says everything about it. The caterers and the schools have been able to adapt and provide the customer with what they want in terms of choice and quality, and the school has been able to put them through the dining room in time. Everyone has worked together to make this policy work on the ground.”
Take-up has even had a ‘modest’ increase at Key Stage 2 among those not entitled to Free School Meals (FSM), according to the report, which is quite remarkable – although it notes that FSM take-up in this age group has fallen slightly. This is something that Tim has seen in Derbyshire, where Key Stage 2 take-up has risen 10% to almost 60%, but FSM take-up has dropped across the board (with various reasons for this).
“Children who have been on UIFSM for two or three years are now going up and are happy to stay on and parents are paying for them,” he says. “But you still need to promote it and promote the benefits day in, day out. If you just leave it, you get a minimal amount of take-up.”
The report also found that take-up of FSM for pupil premium purposes had decreased – almost 70% of school leaders said FSM take-up for pupil premium had stayed the same or fallen. Tim suggests that this is all about communication with parents.
“We don’t think they would have lost out on budgets,” he says. This is because of the way that pupil premium is worked out over a number of years, but most schools now, says Tim, have processes in place to make it easier for parents to register for FSM. The report does recommend, however, that government considers ways to make the process easier under Universal Credit, having learned from the teething problems from UIFSM.
The EPI casts 10-year projections on the future cost of UIFSM. Encouragingly, it found that the £2.30 per child funding rate is sufficient for now, but school leaders are concerned about this figure not rising any time soon while other costs inevitably will.
“There will need to be more money,” stresses Tim. “£2.30 is not enough to cover costs because of public sector wage inflation and food inflation; LACA will likely be going back [to the DfE] to ask for a 10p rise.”
At Derbyshire, for instance, Tim is looking at a 9% pay increase for 75-80% of its school catering workforce, which is costing about £350,000 extra from April onwards.
“These are not insignificant rises and you have to get that money from somewhere,” he says. “You have to look at the price of a meal; you can put the paid price up but you can’t put your UIFSM up as there’s no more money.”
Now that UIFSM is relatively safe – at least, for now – LACA is using the report’s findings to call on the government to roll out the policy to Key Stage 2, so that even more children benefit from a hot, healthy, and importantly, free, school meal. LACA hopes to meet with the new education minister, Nadhim Zahawi, to talk about the policy and make the case for universal free school meals.
“To us this is a natural thing because as far as we’re concerned, UIFSM has been successful,” says Tim.
The EPI will be at the LACA national seminar in March and at LACA The Main Event in July to talk in more detail about the report and in the meantime, LACA will be gathering case studies and examples of best practice to share success stories of UIFSM with schools.
“We know from the report that sitting down to a healthy, nutritious meal has other benefits such as attainment, concentration and behaviour, and we want as many children as possible to benefit from that,” says Tim.
And while infants continue to enjoy their free school meal, the industry now just needs to commit to further research and evaluation on UIFSM.