London District’s Free Lunch Experiment Serves as Example for UK

Parents in the Tower Hamlets borough of East London are singing the praises of a new policy which will see primary school students receive their school lunches for free. All of the borough's four-, five- and six-year-olds qualify for the program.

Inadvertently, Tower Hamlets, which started offering free lunches at the beginning of this year, ended up on the leading edge of a nationwide reform. Shortly after Tower Hamlets adopted the plan, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats announced that free lunches would now be offered to students in the first three grades in all of England's primary schools.

The program will cost Tower Hamlets £2.7 million a year, and for mayor Lutfur Rahman, it's money well-spent.

If Tower Hamlets' recent experience is any guide, the new national policy will prove to be very popular. "There's a been a little bit of parents pinching themselves to see if it's real. Some parents have been asking: ‘Is it true? Is it really true?'" says Fagan.

Shazna Begum, John Scurr's head of meals for early years, says the reaction from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. "They would rather their children have a hot meal at lunchtime, especially in winter. And they like it that their children are experiencing different types of food," Begum says.

Tower Hamlets has discovered one major problem: that parents whose children are eligible for free school meals no longer have the push to register to receive them, since the meals are free anyway. But free school meal eligibility is also used by central government as a measure to distribute the "pupil premium" – additional payments made directly to schools for each pupil who qualifies.

According to Richard Adam,s the education editor for The Guardian, the failure to apply for the pupil premium – which is currently £900 a year but set to rise to £1,300 next a year – could hurt Tower Hamlet's funding. In this way, being a pioneer could hurt the borough in the long run.

More than half of John Scurr's students qualify for the existing free school meals program. Children from families making less than £16,160 in annual income who receive additional benefits can receive free lunches from their school already.

Bridget Fagan, the school's headteacher, says that one of the benefits for switching to the universal free lunch program has been the elimination of stigma suffered by students from lower-income families. With everyone receiving free meals, the separation between those from poorer background and those from families who are better off has become much less visible – at least in the lunch room.

Instead, restricting free school meals to a specific age group creates its own problems of inequality within a family. "There have been people coming to me and saying, why not this child? Why only one of my children and not two of them?" says Fagan.

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