Senior academics challenge Nick Clegg`s “evidence” on free school meals and warn pupils may not benefit from national scheme.

Senior research experts, including two whose work helped shape the Deputy Prime Minister`s free school meals scheme, are challenging Nick Clegg`s claim healthy hot lunches can be better at raising pupils` results than many literacy and numeracy initiatives.

Ellen Greaves, a senior researcher at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), and Dr Claire Crawford of the IFS and Assistant Professor of Economics at Warwick University, lead the assessment of the impact of free school meals in two trial areas for the Department of Education. Ellen Greaves said,

“Our evaluation did compare the impact of the free school meal pilot on attainment to the impacts of a small number of other education programmes. This showed that offering universal free school meals did appear to be more cost effective than one previous literacy intervention; but that is not to say there are no other literacy or numeracy interventions that would offer greater value for money than offering universal free school meals. “

Launching the national scheme ,offering every infant pupil in England a free school lunch, Nick Clegg told BBC Radio 4`s Today programme :

“The evidence, and this has been exhaustively analysed, piloted, examined, is that giving a healthy hot meal at lunchtime is as, if not more, effective than many of the, say, literacy and numeracy initiatives which have been undertaken in the past in the classroom. It has a dramatic effect.”

Senior Researcher Ellen Greaves also warned against assuming results from the pilot project will be repeated across the country:

“We did find that offering free school meals to all pupils in primary schools lead to higher take-up of school meals, and improvements in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 test results. On average, pupils in the pilot areas made between four and eight weeks’ more progress over the two year pilot than similar pupils in comparison areas. But it is not clear from this evidence that these positive outcomes will be repeated in the roll out of free school meals to all infant pupils across the country.

Reasons to be cautious come from differences between the two pilot areas and the national scheme. For example, the two trial areas were relatively disadvantaged and the benefits might be lower in more affluent areas, where more pupils might already pay for school meals or eat nutritious packed lunches; the pilots included events such as talks and taster sessions, to encourage greater take-up of school meals, and these may not happen in every school nationally; and while offering universal free school meals appeared to raise pupil attainment, we can`t say how, as we found no evidence of significant differences in behaviour, health or nutrition.

The findings of the evaluation should therefore be thought of as a guide only, and considered in relation to the whole pilot approach rather than just the provision of free school meals.

Unfortunately, it will be very difficult to evaluate whether the national roll-out of universal free school meals raises pupils’ attainment, because it is hard to know what would have happened to pupils’ outcomes without the scheme.”

Another leading expert on using research to help schools has further questioned the evidence behind the free school meals scheme. Steve Higgins, Professor of Education at Durham University, commented :

“The evidence on the impact of hot lunches, and school meals in general, is very weak.

For example, a summary of forty five studies into the impact of having breakfast on children`s academic performance found, although eating breakfast is better than skipping it, the impact is greatest amongst children who are already undernourished. It also found from studies of school breakfast programmes that, although they can have positive effects on academic performance, this may be partly explained by the increased school attendance that breakfast clubs encourage.

Overall I think the evidence supports the use of targeted literacy and numeracy interventions as the most effective way to improve pupils’ reading and mathematics.”

Notes: The research summary referred to in Professor Higgins` comment is“A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents” by Alexa Hoyland, Louise Dye and Clare L. Lawton, Human Appetite Research Unit, Institute of Psychological Sciences, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK and was published in “Nutrition Research Reviews” 2009

Professor Higgins is an expert in using research evidence to support more effective spending in schools. He has an interest in developing understanding of effective use of research evidence for policy and practice and is the lead author of the Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

Ellen Greaves and the Institute for Fiscal Studies will be assessing the impact of providing free breakfast on pupils’ attainment and behaviour in a trial beginning shortly and working with Magic Breakfast, the Education Endowment Foundation and the Department for Education . Results of the study will be reported in 2016.

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