Do free school meals improve student attainment? If so, how so? Research shows mixed results; in this article, which first appeared on Full Fact, Charlotte Browning investigates
Evidence on how universal free school meals affect attainment is mixed. Research has found that universal free school meals do appear to improve primary school educational attainment. However, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why and most projects have included more than just providing meals.
What are Universal Free School Meals?
Universal Infant Free School Meals were introduced in 2014 by the Coalition government for all English state school pupils in the first three years of primary school. This means these pupils get one free meal at school each day.
The policy is still funded by the government, which provides £2.30 per meal for schools in England.
Labour has promised to extend this by providing free school meals for every primary school child in the UK.
Evidence on the impact of free school meals on educational attainment is mixed
Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour in 2017 have cited a 2013 report as evidence of the positive impact of universal free school meals, written by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the National Centre for Social Research and Brysom Purdon Social Research.
The report looked at pilots in Durham and Newham implementing free school meals for primary school children. It reported that the universal pilot, ‘had a significant positive impact on attainment’.
That was true to some degree.
Pupils in the pilot areas did better in all subjects than similar children in areas where the pilot wasn’t in operation. The differences weren’t all statistically significant when looking at test scores by the end of Year 2, but were ‘positive and significant’ for pupils in Year 6. The report said that it was equivalent to two months’ expected progress at this stage.
But there were caveats to this conclusion.
The project included a whole range of other policies, including activities to encourage healthy eating and to ensure students took up the free meals. So it’s hard to say if the meals alone improved educational performance.
The areas where the pilots took place are also relatively disadvantaged, so any potential educational gains may be smaller in better-off areas if students there are more likely to pay for school lunches or have healthy packed lunches.
The researchers were unable to find the reason behind the improved performance and recommended caution:
‘The results presented in this chapter must be interpreted with some caution, however, as the mechanisms underlying these improvements in attainment are not clear. The universal pilot did not appear to significantly improve children’s behaviour or absence rates from school, making it difficult to pinpoint the cause of the improvements in attainment and thus which elements of the universal entitlement pilot are key to its success.’
The report’s authors have repeated this caution since the policy was implemented across England.
In 2014, Ellen Greaves of the IFS said, “From the pilot evidence, we cannot definitely conclude that attainment will be raised through the universal provision of free school meals to reception, year one and year two children. I wouldn’t feel confident that it would raise attainment in all areas of the country.”
And since Labour has announced its support for universal free school meals Lorraine Dearden, another of the report’s authors, has stressed that more work is needed in this area, especially given the lack of understanding of how exactly free school meals improve educational attainment. She told the Today programme that, “it would be overstating it quite a bit,” to say that the 2013 study justifies a nationwide roll-out of free school meals for all pupils.
There have been similar issues with research into Breakfast Clubs
A 2016 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Education Endowment Fund looked at the impact of free breakfast clubs in disadvantaged primary schools. It showed that Year 2 pupils attending a breakfast club made the equivalent of two months additional progress over a year in reading, writing and maths compared to students at schools not receiving funding for free breakfast clubs. Similar gains were reported for Year 6 pupils in writing and English.
But again it was hard to pinpoint how the free meals helped improve educational attainment. Researchers noted that it wasn’t just eating breakfast that seemed to affect attainment, but eating it at the breakfast club— so it may be the nutritious content of the breakfast or the social aspect of eating with others or the educational environment that helped students to do better.
Again this project was also focused on relatively disadvantaged primary schools. So it may not be possible to use a similar project to improve results for all children.