Parents poll calls for free school meals

Parents tells Rishi Sunak now is the time for Free School Meals for all pupils in primaries across England – not just London: new poll finds.


One year on since Mayor Sadiq Khan announced the extension of Free School Meals to all children in London state primaries, the positive benefits of universal hot school dinners are already being felt in the capital by children and parents.   

A new poll conducted by Survation on behalf of the National Education Union (NEU)’s No Child Left Behind campaign, compared the experiences of 1,500 parents and 1,500 children (1,000 of each in England and 500 in London). It has found:  

  • 52% of struggling parents/carers in England are cutting back on the food shop, 59% on energy and 36% on out-of-school activities for kids 
  • The picture is worse across England than in London. Since the start of this school year, only four in ten (41%) parents in London have had to cut back on the food shop, compared to more than five in ten (54%) across England 
  • One in three (33%) parents/carers struggling with food costs report having less food or less healthy food in their children’s lunchbox.  
  • Free School Meals for All is widely popular, as 88% of parents/carers outside London state support for the UK Government to extend universal Free School Meals to all primary school children in England, with two thirds (66%) “strongly” supporting this change.  

The poll paints a stark picture of hunger in the nation’s schools, finding that four in ten (37%) of children know someone at school who sometimes does not have enough food to eat. Three in ten (28%) pupils report sharing food at least 2-3 times a month with hungry peers.  

Campaigners are united in their demand to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to commit to extending Free School Meals to the 4.6 million children in state primary schools in England – as London, Wales and Scotland have done. The last chance to do so before an election is looming in the Spring Budget on 6 March.  

As Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claims cost of living pressures are starting to ease, only one in four (26%) parents of primary school children in England are coping financially this school year, with one in five (18%) parents struggling to afford basic needs at all.  

The poll also found that the cost-of-living crisis is causing parents to cut back on a series of important nutritional items from the family food shop with knock-on impacts on children’s diet.   

Since the start of this school year, 45% of parents report cutting down on red meat, 38% fresh fruit and 32% fish. As 31% of parents reduce fresh vegetables in the family shop, only 4% of parents in England whose children mainly eat packed lunches report typically including vegetables in their children’s lunchbox.   

Meanwhile in London, where Free School Meals have now been rolled out to all year groups in state primary schools, the impact is already noticeable. 54% of London parents said the scheme has improved the variety in their children's diet. 78% report family budgets easing somewhat or significantly due to Free School Meals for All.   

As one London parent put it: “I would have had to start funding my child's lunches as he will be going into Year 3 - I had no idea where this money would come from so was extremely relieved when the extension to Free School Meals was announced.”   

Many parents cite time (26%) as well as money (34%) as an obstacle to preparing a healthy and balanced packed lunch for their children every day. With the London roll-out underway, 61% of London parents say time pressures have eased. 41% of those parents have been able to spend more time working (e.g. increasing hours), 63% have been able to spend more time with the family (helping with homework, playing with children).  

Half of the children (50%) polled in London from Years 4-6 said the roll out of Free School Meals for all children in their school meant they and their classmates had better concentration. A quarter (25%) say they can now eat and be together at lunchtime.   

Three in ten (29%) children in London said they would be “sad for other children” who would miss out if the scheme ends next school year (2024-25) as anticipated. Other responses children gave about the idea that it might not continue in the long term included “really upset”, “unfair” and “pathetic”. As one child put it: “I feel sad that some of my friends might not be able to eat lunch with me because of money”.  

John Hayes, Headteacher at Gospel Oak Primary School in Camden, where 39% of children live in poverty, said: “Free School Meals for All has had such a positive impact for our pupils. They get healthy, hot food, and, crucially, enough food so they can focus well in class. They can feel equal around the dining table with their peers. We are seeing many more parents unable to afford more expensive healthy food items, so it makes no sense to stop serving children school food once they get to Year 3.”  

Teacher Ann-Marie Ferrigan in Liverpool, whose pupils wrote to the Prime Minister on this issue last year, said: The last few years I’ve seen an incredibly worrying rise in difficulty affording food, the worst I’ve seen in my career as a teacher. It is so vital that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak listens to the voices of parents and children and extends Free School Meals so that every primary school child in England can benefit.”  

Dr Angus Holford, principal investigator for University of Essex’s Universal Free School Meals research project: “It’s no surprise to me that extending Free School Meals to all primary school children is popular among parents and carers. Our recent study at the Institute for Social and Economic Research shows that the four London boroughs that started rolling out universal primary school lunches over a decade ago have caused a reduction in child obesity and improvement in children’s reading ability. We would expect to find similar impacts across the country if Free School Meals for all was rolled out nation-wide, and for this investment in children now to translate into long-term health and economic benefits for society.”

Dr Camilla Kingdon, President of The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and Britain’s most senior paediatricians, adds: “No matter what’s happening in the country, or the economy, children’s health is paramount. This poll supports what our College has been warning about for some time: the cost-of-living crisis is driving a decline in health and nutrition in children. As doctors, we call on the Government to urgently review their position.” 

Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It is simply tone deaf for this Government to claim that the cost-of-living crisis is easing when so many parents of all incomes are cutting back on food. 

“The Chancellor has three weeks to decide if he is serious about young people. When he steps up to the despatch box for the Spring Budget, he needs to tell the country that Free School Meals should be available to every child in every primary school in England, not just London.  

“We have seen an immediate impact from the introduction of FSM in London. Children are more engaged, are thriving in school, and it has taken welcome pressure off parents who are trying to make ends meet. Jeremy Hunt must do the right thing and ensure free school meals for all.” 

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