All children aged between 5 and 7 in England will receive free school meals under a £600 million plan announced today by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.
The measure, which will save parents about £440 a year for each child, is due to come into effect next September. It is aimed at helping families who are feeling the pinch from the rising cost of living but will also have education and health benefits, Mr Clegg said.
The plan will ensure a hot lunch is available to all children in reception, Year 1 and Year 2, and follows a study produced earlier this year for the Department for Education which showed the benefits of free meals.
Mr Clegg said: "My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day.”
He added: "We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits. Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society."
Mr Clegg will use his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow tomorrow to tell activists he would like to go further and provide free meals to primary children too.
The government will also end an anomaly to ensure that disadvantaged college students will be entitled to free school meals on the same basis as their counterparts in school sixth forms.
The School Food Plan published in July recommended that the government should begin rolling out free school meals to all children in primary schools. It found that in areas where the scheme had been piloted students were found to be two months ahead of their peers elsewhere.
Anne Longfield, chief executive at the 4Children charity, said: "Providing a nutritious, hot lunch for all infants in primary school promotes positive eating habits and helps to ensure that children are able to concentrate and perform well in the classroom.”
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said the union welcomed the plan, but wanted to see free meals for all primary pupils.
“Teachers are well aware of the impact on children’s concentration and behaviour and the long term benefits for their educational attainment,” she said.
“With ever increasing rates of child poverty and childhood obesity, universal primary free school meals will not only bring about clear health and education benefits but will help support low income working parents and help to tackle child poverty.”