Have you heard about “universal free school meals” and the School Food Plan? It will affect anyone with a child in reception, year 1 or year 2 from this September (and potentially ALL primary school children in years to come).
September 2014: free school meals
Last September, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that, from September 2014, the following pupils and students will be eligible for a free school meal:
- ALL infant school pupils in state funded schools in England (so children in reception, year 1 and year 2).
- Disadvantaged students at sixth form colleges and further education colleges.
This announcement came on the back of the publication of the the School Food Plan in July 2013, in which Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent recommended that the government should embark on a phased roll out of free school meals for all children in all primary schools.
The government’s stated aim is to provide infant school children with a “hot, nutritious meal at lunch time”, in order to “improve academic attainment and save families money”. Nick Clegg said:
“My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their class mates every day.”
So far, so laudable. And a policy that states that all infant school children will receive a free school lunch, must include food allergic children too, right?
On reading about the plan, the first questions that spring to my mind were:
- If my son has a school lunch, will this be nut free?
- Even if the ingredients are nut free, will the school cook / catering company understand that he cannot have products which say “may contain nuts”?
- Will the school kitchen staff understand about cross contamination?
- If the school can make him a nut free meal, will there be any variety? (I’ve heard several stories of allergic children currently on school dinners having the option of jacket potato… or jacket potato. Every single day).
- If the school lunches won’t be nut safe, might he be the only child eating a packed lunch whilst everyone has school dinners?
Can schools BAN packed lunches?
A further important point is whether schools have the power to ban packed lunches. The School Food Plan infers in several places that headteachers will indeed have this power. For example, the summary of the plan says:
“We have put together a ‘checklist for head teachers’… This includes everything from chucking out prisonstyle trays and getting teachers to eat in the dining hall, to banning packed lunches (it can be done!).”
The checklist itself suggests that headteachers:
“Make sure packed lunches are not a ‘better’ option. Ban sugary drinks, crisps and confectionery, or offer prizes and other incentives for bringing in a healthy lunch. Some schools ban packed lunches outright. If you want to do this, try starting with your newest intake (pupils in reception or year 7). The ban will then apply to all the years that follow them, until it extends to the whole school.”
The Q&A for headteachers is even more explicit, stating at question 11:
“As a Head Teacher, you have the power to decide whether you want to allow pupils to bring in a packed lunch instead of taking up their free school meal. We have seen schools where the Head Teacher has successfully banned packed lunches across the whole school. This clearly takes a clear commitment and excellent communication with pupils and parents.”
So, from this, packed lunches can be banned (and the clear inference is that they should be). The only reference I could see to the contrary was at question 6 of the Q&A, which says:
“be aware that UFSM does not necessarily lead to 100% take up of meals. Because of food allergies, absences, religious beliefs and those who will insist on carrying on with packed lunches, take up usually hovers between 85% and 90%.”
The Anaphylaxis Campaign also noted (in October 2013) that:
“As far as possible we would like to see the severely allergic child to have school meals with their peers … Parents of children with very severe and complex allergies should note that the plan does still allow packed lunches from home.”
So, whilst the position isn’t 100% clear, it seems that a school can impose a packed lunch ban, but make a concession for those with food allergies or certain religious beliefs.
What does the School Food Plan say about food allergies?
Very little, so far. The key provision relating to allergies is set out in the Q&A for Headteachers as follows (click to enlarge):
How does the School Food Plan tie in with the Children and Families Bill?
The Children and Families Bill: food allergies
The Children and Families Bill is currently passing through Parliament and is expected to be enacted as the “Children and Families Act 2014” soon. The Bill covers a wide range of areas, such as family law, childcare providers and parental leave.
In October 2013, the Government announced that the Bill would be amended to include a duty on schools to support pupils with long-term health needs, namely:
“The appropriate authority for a school … must make arrangements for supporting pupils at the school with medical conditions”
In doing so, the authority must “have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State”. The government is consulting on this statutory guidance at the moment (the consultation will end on 14 March 2014).
The duty (and related guidance) aim to ensure that children with long term health needs have full access to education. The current draft guidance refers to food at paragraph 39, providing that:
“it is not generally acceptable practice to: … send children with medical conditions home frequently or prevent them from staying for normal school activities including lunch”
For more details, see the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s report of the Bill’s progress through Parliament.
The Children and Families Bill: free school meals
In addition to the duty to support pupils with long-term health needs, on 23 January 2014, the Government announced its:
“intention to amend the Children and Families Bill, which is currently before Parliament, to place a legal duty on primary schools to offer free meals to all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2 from this September. The legislation will also include a power to extend the policy to additional year groups in future.”
- Primary schools will be under a legal duty to provide free school meals (to children in reception, year 1 and year 2) from September 2014.
- It seems that, although headteachers have the power to ban packed lunches, food allergic children may be exempted from this ban.
- The detailed guidance for schools regarding how to keep food allergic children safe is still awaited.
I was chatting recently to the head of nutrition at a catering company which supplies many schools. Her view that there shouldn’t be a problem with nuts, in that most schools already veto both foods with nuts as an ingredient or those labelled “may contain nuts” or equivalent wording. Whilst that was reassuring for me to hear, the situation may not be so straightforward for those with multiple allergies (and I imagine if you are dealing with allergies outside of the “top 14”, it will be trickier still).
If a school can’t provide a safe school meal for an allergic child, and a parent has to instead provide a packed lunch, this raises questions of both:
- “Exclusion”: the child with the long term health condition being unable to join in school lunches with their peers.
- Cost: who should be paying for the packed lunch alternative?
And, if a policy of “free school meals for all” excludes food allergic children, could there potentially be an argument that this is treating a disabled child less favourably than another child? If a school says “allergic children can bring packed lunches”, would that be a reasonable adjustment for a disabled child? Or is it reasonable to expect a school to adapt its menu options to provide safe alternatives for allergic children?
Let’s hope it doesn’t become necessary to even think about such arguments. Fingers crossed the forthcoming guidance for schools will inspire confidence that food allergies CAN be catered for and that free school meals really are for “all”.
- School Food Plan website.
- School Food Plan summary.
- School Food Plan: Chapter Eleven An assessment of universal free school meals.
- School Food Plan Q&A for headteachers.
- Anaphylaxis Campaign, The School Food Plan and the allergic child – an update, October 2013.
- Children and Families Bill: progress through Parliament.
- Children and Families Bill amendment, Duty to support pupils with medical conditions.
- Ministerial statement on Children and Families Bill – Duty and statutory guidance to support children with medical conditions.
- Department for Education consultation, Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions.
- Letter to primary school headteachers dated 23 January 2014 from Michael Gove and David Laws.
- Children and Families Bill amendment, Provision of free school lunches.