Free school meals are so successful that no incoming government will tamper with them, says Institute of Hospitality chief executive Peter Ducker
The success of the policy has exceeded all expectations. Previous take-up of hot meals in primary schools was low, an average of 43%. That left school meal providers struggling - the service needed at least 50% of pupils to use it to be financially viable. At first, it was thought that universal free meals would drive take-up to about 75%. In fact, it has risen to between 80% and 90%.
The London Borough of Islington, which introduced free school meals for all primary pupils earlier on, in 2010, has reported that a hot midday meal rather than a cold packed lunch results in physically healthier children who are more focused and calmer in the afternoons and make better progress in their learning. Their families have also saved as much as £800 a year.
After so many cash-starved years, the new injection of funding has also brought enormous benefits for previously ignored and marginalised service providers. Morale has increased, and there is plenty of training and support available. From next year, school food will be part of Ofsted inspections, underlining that a good meal service is now rightly considered the responsibility of head teachers and governing bodies too. The benefits for food and equipment suppliers have generated positive knock-on effects for local economies. In Hampshire alone, 300 new ovens were ordered.
The Liberal Democrats can claim vindication for their policy, which initially caused disagreements within the Coalition. The argument against providing a universal benefit, particularly in an era of fiscal austerity (why give meals free to families who can easily afford to pay for them?), appears to have been lost because of the other issues at stake: social cohesion and the health, wellbeing and education of young children.
Every major political party has now pledged to continue the current free school meal policy. It is further proof of the policy's success that the incoming Conservative government dare not tamper with it.
Making people pay for something that was previously free is not easy. So how many families will start paying for their seven-year-olds' meals when they go back to school in September? If school meals take-up remains high, then this will be vindication of the policy indeed.