The flagship Liberal Democrat policy is reportedly under review by the Government and could be axed as part of the Department for Education’s spending review plans, submitted to the Treasury last week.
The Department for Education (DfE) did not confirm or deny the plans.
The £600m a year Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) scheme was introduced last September to provide all children in Reception to Year 2 with free school meals.
As part of the scheme, which was launched by the former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Government provided £150m of capital funding for schools to increase the capacity of their kitchens and dining halls.
Despite its good intentions, the programme sparked a lot of criticism, with headteachers, children’s charities and teaching unions arguing that the money could be better spent.
Concerns were also raised over the cost of improving the poor catering and dining facilities in many schools.
Reports that the UIFSM scheme is under review by the Government follows the news that two DfE-funded projects to help schools increase the number of pupils taking up meals have been axed.
The Government has pulled its support for the ‘Increase Your School Meal Take Up’ programme, run by Food for Life, and the Children’s Food Trust’s ‘Make School Meals Count’ project.
The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) has also revealed that many schools are struggling to provide meals that children want to eat and within budget.
According to the union’s policy adviser Valentine Mulholland, take-up of meals among children in some areas is as low as 30 per cent.
Speaking last week, she said, ‘There are still schools that are struggling with free meals. Economies of scale aren’t going to suddenly appear at the end of the first year.
‘We have members who feel their cooking facilities are not ideal so what they are seeing is quite a low take-up because children don’t like the food.
‘Where schools have had to bring food in, it can be quite challenging. For others quality of food still needs to be improved.’
A Government spokesperson said, ‘We believe that every child, regardless of their background, should have the same opportunities. That is at the heart of what we are doing with school food – no child should be hindered because they are not eating a nutritious meal at lunchtime.
‘We have provided significant financial support to schools to help them deliver universal infant free school meals. We have come a long way and the new School Food Standards mean pupils of all ages are eating good food that sows the seeds for healthy eating for life.’
A Children’s Food Trust spokesman said, 'Far and away the most important thing about this scheme is its power to make sure that more of the children who most need school lunches actually get them. When all children are offered good school meals for free, more families opt for healthy school food because it becomes the norm. Many children living in poverty aren’t reaching their full potential at school, and their nutrition has an impact on that – which is why every route to help them eat better is a route we should be taking.
'Universal free meals are also a huge opportunity to start early and help influence the way every child eats for life. If we don’t improve how children eat, our national health bill for treating conditions linked to poor diet will continue to spiral. As the government shapes its Child Obesity Strategy, now is the time to be measuring how this scheme can work even harder to improve children’s nutrition, especially for children living in poverty.
'Behind all this, schools and their staff continue to need good support to deliver this well: to make sure they have the skills and the facilities they need to serve excellent food and an excellent experience to more children. To reap the full benefits of universal free school meals, the experience for children must be a good one.'