PLANS to introduce free school meals for all infant children in England could relieve a pressing financial burden for hundreds of families in the area, experts have said.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced this week that youngsters in reception and years one and two would be able to have free lunches – regardless of their income – from next September.
The move, which could save families upwards of £400 a year, is aimed at ensuring that all children have the chance to access hot and healthy food, which will give them the best start in life, it has been claimed.
The move, which was announced by the Liberal Democrat leader at the party’s annual conference, will provide a welcome relief for many parents facing hardship in the Burton and South Derbyshire area, according to organisations which deal with struggling families.
Dawn Green, chief executive of East Staffordshire Citizens Advice Bureau, told the Mail: “This is very welcome news. It’s going to have a massive impact on those families that have got children at school.
“It’s definitely a positive thing for all families, regardless of what their income is. It’s good that it is available to everybody.”
Under current legislation, children are entitled to free school meals if their parents receive benefits or earn less than £16,190 per annum.
The system will remain the same for older primary school children, but Mr Clegg said he had ambitions for all children under 11 to receive free school meals eventually.
He added: “Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze. I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families.”
Andrew Ridout, head teacher at Tower View Primary School in Winshill, one of the more deprived areas of Burton, said the change would have a big impact on pupils and parents at the school.
He said: “I think it would be a beneficial thing for our children as it would give them the option to take free school meals.
“We have good meals at the school, which are nutritious and we provide a healthy range of food.”
We would definitely encourage parents to get involved with this.”
He added that if more youngsters were to have healthy school meals it ‘could possibly’ lead to them performing better in class – something Mr Clegg said he believed could happen.
The Mail contacted several more schoolsthe area, but none were available for comment.
The announcement has been made following a report which showed that a high number of packed lunches which children take to school are unhealthy.
At the time of the report, commissioned by the Department for Education, the authors called for packed lunches to be scrapped, causing outcry from parents across the UK.
This announcement does not go that far, but does open up the option of accessing a hot dinner to more people.
Tracey Harris, senior organiser at Home-Start South Derbyshire, said: “Some Home-Start South Derbyshire families are on the poverty borderline. For example, families do not qualify for benefits, both parents are working, but struggle with the additional cost of child care, travel expenses et cetera. Free school meals will help alleviate some of the financial burden.
“Universal access to free school meals will mean more people can take them up and thus remove the social stigma attached.”
She agreed that by providing a balanced and nutritious meal, it could improve children’s physical health and mental performance at school.
Teaching unions have supported the move, which will cost the Government around £600 million, but called for it to be extended to provide meals for all primary school children.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Children however do not stop being hungry at 7 years of age. We hope that today’s announcement represents just the start of rolling out free schools meals to all children in primary schools before the end of this Parliament.
“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.”
Some readers posting on the Mails Facebook page agreed it should be extended to all children, whilst others slated the proposals as ‘a complete waste of money’.
Alan Flowers said: “Poor kids get free meals, so that means the rich will benefit now. What about the children seven years and up who work but can’t afford to pay?”
Penny Wood said: “I’ve been paying for school meals for years – lots of people have. Why fix something that’s not broken? Every child eats on a school day regardless of income. To say only under sevens get it free, does that mean over sevens are less important? In my eyes all children are equal and deserve the best. Age shouldn’t come into it.”
Some people argued that means testing should remain in place.
Charlotte Heathcote said: “It should be banded on family income. Top earners should still have to pay.”
Others simply agreed with the proposals, such as Caroline Dear, who said: “There are kids out there who don’t get a hot meal a day. No child should go hungry, and at least this is addressed five days a week.”
It comes after universal child benefit was slashed for families where one parent earns more than £50,000.