Nursery Food: School meals - Free for all

The recent expansion of free school meals has presented difficulties for many, but schools are finding ways to make it work. Katy Morton reports

Millions of infant pupils are now receiving free school meals under the Government's flagship policy. However, the scheme has not been without its problems, forcing many schools to come up with creative solutions to what could otherwise have been a logistical nightmare.

As of September, all children in Reception and Years 1 and 2, the equivalent of 1.5 million pupils, became eligible for free school meals. Previously only children from families on benefits were entitled to free school dinners.

The Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) scheme followed an independent Government review of school food, which found too many meals had little or no nutritional value and take-up of meals was low.

The Government committed £450m to fund the first year of the scheme, and £635m for 2015-2016. It also provided £150m of capital funding for schools to increase the capacity of their kitchens and dining halls.

Despite the good intentions of the scheme, it has sparked a lot of criticism. Opponents - among them head teachers, children's charities and the teaching unions - have argued that the money could be better spent and criticised the tight deadline and cost of improving the poor catering and dining facilities in many schools.

Some of these concerns have been realised. Information obtained by the Labour Party and a survey by the Local Government Association revealed that many councils had received insufficient money to cover the cost of implementing the programme.

Those facing a shortfall said the balance would be found either by them, by schools or from school funding intended for repairs and maintenance. However, declining budgets mean many schools cannot or are reluctant to fund the scheme from their education budget (see case studies).


Many of the schools that faced restrictions to their finances and space limitations have gone to great lengths to make the UIFSM scheme a reality.


Cerne Abbas School CE VE First School, Dorchester, which has no kitchen or hall, switched suppliers for its hot meals from a contract caterer to Sunninghill Preparatory School, based 10 miles away. The school decided to make the switch when it realised the increase in the number of meals would mean children would be left waiting for their food.

Winterbourne Valley CE School also receives hot meals prepared by Sunninghill's head chef Kerry Davies, and all three schools are part of a local federation, the Dorchester Area Schools Partnership.

Cerne Abbas federation support services manager Alex Ryan explains, 'Before, just 25 children in total were having school meals, whereas now 35 out of 38 infant pupils alone are taking up the offer of hot dinners.

'The meals, which are delivered by minibus, arrive at midday in hot boxes. Each hot box contains eight portions. Staff use a probe to check the temperature of the food before transferring it to insulated serving dishes. As part of the service, staff from Sunninghill offer a "dirty dish return", whereby they collect used crockery and cutlery which they wash and re-use.'

Children sit eight to a table in mixed age groups. Older children help serve younger ones and the school has three lunchtime supervisors.


Lack of dining hall space has meant Bentley High Street Primary School has had to introduce different sittings at lunchtime. Since September, the number of meals the school provides has grown from 250 to 340 a day.

Despite the introduction of a 'Kitchen Pod' in May - previously the school had no cooking facilities - head teacher Janice James says providing nearly an additional 100 meals a day within a time period of an hour and a quarter has proved tricky.

Nursery children eat their meals at 11:45am, followed by Reception pupils at midday and then Key Stage 1 and 2 children. Lack of cutlery for the increased number of children means the school has to wash cutlery during the lunchtime service. At the same time, the school's chef also cooks food as it runs out.

'Only 11 infant children now have packed lunches, whereas 40 children were bringing their own food in before. Because we are in a deprived area, a lot of parents have taken up the offer of a free meal for their child. Before, many parents felt they could provide a lunch for a lot less than the cost of a school meal, charged at £2 a day,' explains Ms James, who claims that the quality of the meals has shot up since the school got the Kitchen Pod and employed a cook.

The school was the first primary in Doncaster to buy a Pod, with money saved from the school budget and additional funding from the local authority. Made by PKL Group, it came with new cooking equipment, including double ovens, meat slicers and microwaves.

'The vegetables are so much fresher and pies and roast potatoes are crispy, unlike before when meals were shipped to us,' she explains. 'We now have home-made bread and there is a lot more choice. This also appeals to staff at the school, a lot of whom have a hot meal with the children, which we subsidise.'


St Margaret Clitherow Primary School, Stevenage, had an outdoor structure built to increase the capacity of its dining hall. Head teacher Jonathan White explains, 'We opted for an outdoor structure from Outdoor Places because there wasn't enough room for an internal expansion and we had a limited budget.'

A voluntary-aided school, St Margaret Clitherow was only entitled to 90 per cent of its capital costs from Department for Education grants. The additional 10 per cent of funding had to come from the school's own resources such as the Parents, Staff and Friends' Association and voluntary contributions.

The hall doubles as a dining and PE space, so the school also bought fold-up, moveable tables with attached chairs to provide a quick and easy changeover. The outdoor structure provides an additional 36 places for Years 5 and 6 pupils, while the new tables have increased capacity in the hall to 120 places. The total cost to the school was £21,000.

Mr White says the investment means that dinnertime still takes only 50 minutes despite the number of meals they provide for infants doubling since September, from 40 per cent uptake to 80 per cent among Key Stage 1 pupils. However, the percentage of children having meals can vary day to day, from 69 per cent of infants to 92 per cent, depending on what is being served. Roast dinners and Friday's fish and (low-fat) chips are most popular.

'So far, the outdoor structure is working really well, particularly as the weather has been so nice,' says Mr White. 'We haven't had to employ more dining room assistants, as we have just deployed some of those we already had, many of whom work as teaching assistants, to outside.'

Mr White says having teaching assistants as dining room helpers is beneficial because they have a good relationship with the children and can report back to parents if a younger child is not eating so well.

'If sitting outside becomes an issue when it gets colder, more children may have to eat their meals inside on the portable tables,' says Mr White. 'If this isn't possible, then we may have to consider using classrooms for children to eat in, although I don't really want to do this, as it may not be the ideal sociable eating solution.'


Limited facilities, no means to keep food warm and a desire not to use money from its education budget, led Saint George's Catholic Primary School in Shoeburyness to take the decision to serve only cold meals.

'Another primary school recommended a local sandwich company, Relish, which was supplying it with hot meals,' says head teacher Annabelle Smith. 'However, a problem for us was how to keep food warm as we only have one home kitchen oven, and renewing our equipment would have cost thousands. We used to have a kitchen, but this was turned into a learning base and community suite.'

She invited Relish to come to the school to do a taster session with children and parents, which went down very well. The school also sent a questionnaire to parents, all of whom were happy with the provision of cold meals as they thought it was a fair swap from packed lunches.

Some 90 per cent of infants have taken up the offer of a free meal. One reason for its popularity, says Ms Smith, is the wide range of choice that Relish provides. 'There are 30 options to choose from every day, including different sandwiches, wraps and pastas. For pupils that are lactose intolerant, sandwiches and wraps can be made without spread.'

Relish also supplies the school with desserts, home-made French bread and vegetable crudites. 'Meals come in a paper bag, which our mid-day assistant sorts through,' says Ms Smith. 'We extended her shift by 30 minutes so she can put the children's names on their order. Some children rip open the bag and use it as a plate. Pasta comes in pots with lids, which Relish washes and re-uses.'


- Children's Food Trust,

- Free school meals advice,

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