Professor Terence Stephenson

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Nuffield Professor of Child Health at University College London and chair of the UK Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

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Professor Terence Stephenson

Do you believe the Government's move to make new free schools and academies follow revised food standards is a positive step towards improving children's health?

Yes definitely, and credit should be given where credit is due. The Government is moving in the right direction following the call by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges for all schools to abide by food standards.

However, it seems that while academies formed before 2010 and after September 2014 will be obliged to follow standards, the several thousand formed in the intervening years can sign up voluntarily.

We believe the existing food-based standards in England should be applied to all schools. That reflects the call in our 2013 report Measuring Up, for mandatory rather than voluntary arrangements. Otherwise there remains one rule for all maintained schools and some academies and another for academies formed 2010-2014.

How many free schools and academies follow the standards?

In January 2012, the Children's Food Trust (then the School Food Trust) wrote to more than 1,500 academies and 99 per cent of those that replied said they were committed to following the new food standards. However, the research showed that many academies were still offering foods banned in maintained schools.

Out of 99 academies that said what foods they served or sold, 89 were selling at least one type of unhealthy food that was banned in maintained schools. Confectionery and chocolate were being sold in 16 academies, crisps and savoury snacks in 26, and cereal bars, which contain 20-40 per cent sugar, in 54.

What could it mean for the long-term health of children who attend those free schools and academies that decide against following the standards?

School food standards were created for a reason - they ensure schools set an example to young people by serving a healthy diet. Evidence shows that the foods offered by maintained schools were healthier after the introduction of these standards in 2009, compared to beforehand (2005). The salt content of school lunches fell by one third and pupils choosing vegetables or salad increased by 15 per cent.

If some schools still don't comply, their pupils may be exposed to more unhealthy diets. With one in three UK children overweight or obese by age nine, compared to one in six when they start school - the highest rate in Europe - we can ill afford complacency for our children.