|As usual, ‘one size does not fit all’|
Hunger in the classroom is linked to lower attainment, poor behaviour, and worse health outcomes. In the last few years, UK policymakers have tried to reduce the number of children with poor nutrition by expanding school food initiatives, including providing free school meals to all children in Reception through Year 2 in English schools.
The Labour Party has promised to extend this free meal entitlement to children in Years 3 to 6 (ages 7-11) in England in order to ‘benefit the educational attainment and health of all children’.
Universal free school meals can improve attainment in some circumstances. A 2012 pilot study by IFS researchers and others found that Year 6 students in Newham and Durham, where all primary children were offered free school lunches, made around two months’ additional progress over a two-year period compared to similar children in other areas. In this observation we argue that extending the policy nationwide would come at a significant cost and might not lead to similar gains.Other policies, such as offering free breakfast clubs (as is the case in Wales and as trialled in England) might be a cheaper and more effective way to improve both education and health outcomes.