Free school meals for infants: questions remain on impact

28 April 2015

The Liberal Democrats have pledged to "Extend free school meals to all children in primary education as resources allow and following a full evaluation of free meals for infants". We don't know yet what impact the policy is having.

Universal Infant Free School Meals were introduced for all infants in reception, year 1 and year 2 in September 2014.

The policy was introduced to "improve academic attainment and save families money".

An evaluation of the pilot scheme for Free School Meals found that performance improved. The pilot made free meals available to all pupils attending primary school in two areas, and increased the provision at both primary and secondary schools in another area.

Pupils in both universal pilot areas were found to make around two months more progress, on average, than similar pupils in comparison areas.

However, this was the impact of the whole scheme, which included other supporting activities conducted alongside the free school meal provision, like activities to encourage the take-up of school meals and to support healthy eating. So it's difficult to say if the meals alone triggered the improved performance.

There was also no evidence of any significant health benefits as a result of the scheme, and the research was unable to find the reason behind the improved performance.

The researchers said they were unable to find "conclusive" evidence that the policy would help to reduce educational inequalities, only "suggestive" evidence.

Commentators such as Tim Harford have suggested the research doesn't fully explain why the meals led to improved performance and so whether the effect was real. The evaluation also found that other educational initiatives were found to produce better value for money.

The Lib Dems have pledged a full evaluation of the policy which can seek to understand better the impact of the policy before any extension takes place.

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