A report measuring the success of offering Universal Free School Meals (UFSM) to all primary school children has unveiled its findings.

For the last eight years, Islington Council in north London, has made UFSM available to pupils age 4-11. Under the Government’s criteria for UFSM implemented in 2014, only children in Reception and Year 1 and 2 of primary school are entitled to free school meals. This is known as Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM).

Now, Islington Council has produced a report, which shows the outcomes of rolling out the programme across both Key Stage 1 and 2.

The Findings include:

  • 94% of infant school children in Islington enjoy healthy free school meals at lunchtime compared to the London and national averages (89% and 86% respectively).
  • In September 2018, the average take up of a healthy free school meal at lunchtime for all primary-aged children across all primary schools was 84%
  • 1 in 10 children in London stated that their biggest meal of the day was their school lunch
  • A whole-school approach to healthy school meals has shown improvements in academic attainment at Key Stages 1 and 2, especially for pupils with lower prior attainment. Between 2009 and 2012, pupils in the UFSM pilots in Newham and Durham were found to be up to two months ahead in maths and English

Report author Tania Townsend, partnership development and strategy manager, said: “Food poverty and insecurity has become an increasingly urgent reality for many residents and their children. The proportion of children living in challenging financial circumstances is currently estimated to be 38% in Islington. Applied to the population aged 0-15 years, this indicates that Islington has over 14,000 children living
in these circumstances and therefore at high risk of food poverty. The recent Food Poverty Needs Assessment found that financial problems were by far the most common reason given for food poverty, exacerbated by rises by high non-food bills, particularly energy bills and transport costs.”

The 2018 Camden and Islington Food Poverty Needs Assessment found that some vulnerable groups of children are hidden and at high risk of food poverty such as those with no recourse to public funds. Tania Townsend continued: “National research on the pilots for extending free school meals in England and Scotland found that there were significant increases in take-up amongst primary-aged children. This included take-up among those who were previously eligible and also for those who were entitled but not eligible. It could be suggested that making FSM a universal offer removed the stigma often associated with free school meals which has affected increased take-up.”

Commenting on the report, Michael Hales, chair of LACA (Lead Association for Catering in Education), said:

“LACA has long called for UIFSM to be expanded to all primary school children and the report by Islington Council highlights why. As demonstrated in their report, UFSM has increased take-up of school meals, contributed to improved nutrition and eased financial pressure on parents. It is striking that at a time of rising childhood obesity, in Islington 38% of Year 6 pupils ate at least five portions of fruit and vegetables the day before they were surveyed, compared to 29% nationally.”

“In addition, the suggestion that UFSM has led to improvements in academic attainment, especially for pupils with lower prior attainment, supports our own findings. I hope that local authorities across the country see this report and realise the benefits of UFSM for all primary school children.”