Free School Meals - should schools be feeding the nation’s children?
7th Jun 2020
I am a huge proponent of free school meals and actively encourage all parents, who think they may be eligible, to apply. We have come a long way since my primary school days of removing the stigma of being one of “those” children, who had to stand in a different queue to be able to eat a (questionably) good, nutritious, hot meal. Even in later years, students have had to hand over vouchers, which carry a very visible marker of their family’s finances, or schools have name-based systems, where students vocalise their poverty status at the canteen till, which can all lead to students not receiving the healthy meals to which they are entitled.
We have moved on to a certain extent with confidentiality around FSM improving with the advent of electronic and card-based systems, but it’s still not enough.
We know that young people growing up in lower income families have substantially poorer educational outcomes than their wealthier peers. Providing healthy food – which can improve educational outcomes – could help close this attainment gap. Research has shown a significant and immediate effect of diet on behaviour, concentration and cognitive ability. Increasing the provision of quality, healthy school meals in Britain can increase student achievement, by up to 8% in Key Stage 2 in Science, and reduce absenteeism by 15% for all young people. Providing more healthy meals to low income students could help to close the attainment gap between students from lower income households and their wealthier peers.
So why do we only care about this during term time. I’m sure we have all seen children returning to school after the Summer holidays visibly thinner and lacking energy. Do we not have a social responsibility to these children all year round?
An article in The Guardian this week stated “Campaigners have threatened to take the government to court over its decision not to extend its free school meals voucher system for low-income families over the summer holiday period. Sustain, a food charity and the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit membership organisation, said that if an adequate alternative plan was not put forward in the next few days they would take legal action to reverse the decision in order to protect more than 1 million children at risk of holiday hunger.”
Why has it taken a pandemic for people to realise that children do go hungry over holiday periods? In the same way, we have seen communities come together to clap for the NHS, go shopping for their neighbours, teach their relatives how to use Zoom (with mixed results) - this is the time for us to implement a long term strategy to ensure children don’t go hungry all year round.
I admit it – I love dogs! Dogs of all shapes and sizes! Well, actually that’s not true – at the risk of offence, you can keep your Chihuahuas! To me, a dog makes a home complete and more than ever, during lockdown, my dog Murphy has kept me company, amused and exercised. However, is a school the right place for a dog?
At the Coppice Primary School, they have Rufus, the Site Manager’s dog, who is an absolute asset to the school. He “works” in the Thrive department – a social and emotional development team who work closely with many pupils across the school. The programme has shown that contact and interaction with animals has many benefits for children. They can benefit educationally and emotionally, increase their understanding of responsibility and develop empathy and nurturing skills. In addition to these benefits, many children take simple, yet enormous pleasure from interaction with animals. Whenever children come into school upset, the first port of call is Rufus, who takes their mind off leaving Mum or Dad and nine times out of ten, they trot merrily in behind Rufus, without a care in the world.
In a blog by Alison Broad, Director of Primary Education at the University of Birmingham, she states “One teacher told me: Children drop their guard and they tell him [the dog] things that they would never tell us or another grown up”. This resonates with the pioneering work of Boris Levinson, considered by many to be the founding father of modern canine-assisted therapy. Levinson discovered that the presence of his dog, Jangles, had a positive impact upon his young patients by facilitating a less stressful, more informal therapeutic setting, conducive to greater self-disclosure and enhanced treatment outcomes (Levinson, 1969)”.
For any schools concerned about reactions from children or parents, they could try a visiting dog scheme such as Pets as Therapy or Read2Dogs. Dogs for Good also run a community dog scheme for children with special educational needs.
Children and other adults in the school do need to be briefed on acceptable interaction with the dog with rules of engagement – certainly no pulling on its tail or chasing it around the playground but my personal view is that it is entirely possible for a dog to thrive in a school and they soon become a valued member of the team.
For more information on Alison Broad’s research, you can visit her blogs here: