Giving primary children free lunches is a more cost-effective way to boost their test results than some high-profile literacy and numeracy schemes, researchers have found.
In a report prepared for the Department for Education and the Department of Health, and published in July, a consortium of independent researchers evaluated a trio of pilot schemes to extend free school meals set up by Labour when it was in government.
The pilots ran from the autumn of 2009 to summer 2011 and tested two different approaches. In Newham, east London, and Durham, all primary school children were offered free school meals. In Wolverhampton, entitlement was extended to cover pupils in primary and secondary schools whose families received working tax credit and whose annual income did not exceed #163;16,040 in 2009-10 and #163;16,190 in 2010-11.
The researchers found that the projects in Newham and Durham had a "significant positive impact on attainment" for primary school pupils at key stages 1 and 2. Pupils there made between four and eight weeks' more progress than similar children in comparison areas.
The pilots led to a 1.9 percentage point increase in the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level in reading at key stage 1, a 2.2 percentage point increase for maths at key stage 1, a 4 percentage point increase for English at key stage 2 and a 5.5 percentage point increase for maths at key stage 2.
In contrast, the extended entitlement pilot in Wolverhampton did not significantly affect attainment for either primary or secondary school pupils. The report said that the Wolverhampton pilot "yielded little in the way of positive benefits for any of the outcomes" considered in their evaluation, and "it seems clear that it does not offer good value for money".
More for less
The universal entitlement pilot appeared to deliver better value for money, on average, than the Every Child a Reader and Every Child Counts schemes, "at least in terms of the educational outcomes that could be directly compared," the researchers said. Those two national initiatives had involved highly targeted support for children struggling with literacy and numeracy.
The report's authors did not deem the free school meals to be as good value for money as the Literacy Hour introduced by Labour or Jamie Oliver's Feed Me Better campaign, which aimed to improve the quality of school meals rather than give universal entitlement.
The researchers found that the improvements in attainment among pupils involved in the free school meal trials were the result of improvements in their productivity while at school.
However, the causes of the improvements in productivity were uncertain, and could have been linked to nutrition, the social benefits of children eating together or more positive relationships between parents and the school.
Other research had suggested that eating school lunches benefited children's behaviour and health. So as well as examining academic performance, the pilot studies looked at the impact on children's behaviour and attendance.
Neither the universal nor the extended entitlement pilots reduced the amount of time pupils were absent from school. The increased productivity also did not appear to stem from better pupil behaviour, as neither pilot resulted in parents having a more positive perception of how their children behaved.
Similarly, there was no evidence that the scheme led to significant health benefits for children during the two-year pilot period.
The authors of the report came from the National Centre for Social Research, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Bryson Purdon Social Research.
Evaluation of the Free School Meals Pilot: Impact Report is available at bit.lyQp5PRe
The total running cost of the pilot was estimated to be #163;12.1 million in Newham, #163;16.6 million in Durham and #163;2 million in Wolverhampton, over two years.
These figures are equivalent to about #163;220 per primary school pupil per year in Newham and Durham, and just under #163;40 per pupil per year in Wolverhampton.
Most pupils in Newham and Durham took up the offer of free school meals. About nine in 10 primary school pupils were taking at least one school meal per week by the end of the pilot, compared with about six in 10 similar pupils in matched comparison areas.
Take-up increased in the pilot areas among pupils who were not previously eligible for free school meals and also among pupils who were already eligible.
Two years after the pilot was introduced, 90 per cent of pupils were still taking school meals at least once a week.