Why are families in the South East, along with some others from across the country, ignoring the chance to increase their spending power by not taking up the free infant lunch programme on offer in schools? Many of the authorities with the lowest take up in the latest DfE statistics of census day are located in the South East. They include unitary authorities, such as Brighton & Hove, Slough, Reading, Medway and Milton Keynes and counties such as East Sussex and Oxfordshire. All these authorities had a take-up of less than 81% of pupils eating lunch on census day.
At the other end of the scale, Inner London averaged a nearly 91% take-up and Solihull managed to achieve just over 96% take-up. Now, I guess there may be some parents that regard the food on offer as not acceptable for culinary, cultural or dietary reasons, but it is difficult to see why so many parents in some authorities not only forgo an extra £400 or spending money, but presumably also shell out hard cash on creating meals for their children to eat instead. If they don’t think that the food on offer is good enough then they should be lobbying the governing body or MAT trustees for an improvement.
Now, I am sure some of the difference could be a result of how important the local authority still sees its role in education and thus in encouraging schools to provide meals that are attractive and nutritional. This may be less of a concern in areas with lots of academies and free schools.
It could also be that some of these families have children in schools where more emphasis is placed on the breakfast club than on lunch to ensure a healthy start to the day. Of course, locally high incidences of sickness in specific schools may also have played a part in an authority’s position in the rankings. However, it does seem that the further north you travel in England, the higher the take-up was, with London, and specifically the inner London boroughs, being the main exception to this rule of thumb analysis.
The should be sufficient data now available to identify whether pupils in schools with low take-up fare any differently at the end of Key State 1 than pupils in schools where take-up is much higher once researchers have standardised for all other possible variables; a tough ask.
I guess, with the present funding problems facing schools, there won’t be any real pressure from government for a scheme to extend the free lunch arrangements to Key Stage 2 pupils and, no doubt, some politicians may see the whole exercise as an ineffective use of money, forgetting the benefits to both parents and children achieved by the was the scheme is resourced. The initiative to roll out the scheme for Key Stage 1 pupils was a Coalition government action with some parts of the Labour strongly supporting and other being either lukewarm or downright hostile to the idea.