No plans to extend free school meals to secondary pupils, says City Hall

Deputy mayor for children and families says the government should be funding universal free school meals beyond primary age, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Schools meals
credit Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Sadiq Khan’s deputy has confirmed that City Hall has no plans to introduce universal free lunches in London secondary schools – despite an “overwhelmingly positive” response to the policy’s recent launch in primary schools.

Joanne McCartney, London’s deputy mayor for children and families, said City Hall had insufficient funds to provide free school meals to secondary students and that the government should be paying for them.

The government defended its record on providing free school meals, saying that it has extended the eligibility for them more than any other administration has done over the past half century.

Khan announced in February this year that he would be providing free school meals to all London primary pupils throughout the 2023/24 academic year, but would only be able to do so for one year – arguing that the government should pay for the policy after that point.

Free school meals were already being provided by the government across England for all children in year two and below. After year two, the government only provides lunches to children from households receiving certain benefits.

McCartney said of the reaction to City Hall’s free school meal programme: “It’s been overwhelmingly positive. The education sector is just really grateful that the mayor is putting money behind this policy and of course it is popular with Londoners as well.”

She pointed out that free school meals are already being provided on a universal basis to children up to particular ages in primary schools across Wales and Scotland.

“Hopefully there’ll be a wealth of evidence that will say to [the UK] government, this is a really good, popular policy, but actually long term, it’s really economically justified as well,” she said.

Asked whether City Hall would be providing any support at secondary level however, the deputy mayor said: “The mayor’s able to do this because there was additional money from business rates, which he was able to put into this.

“This [primary schools] is where we feel we can make more difference to children. Obviously, longer term, we think government should look at funding [meals for] all children.

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“We do know that a couple of boroughs are looking at testing that in London at the moment, so I think it’s important that we have a look at the results from those and the evidence that they get from that.”

Tower Hamlets Council, run by mayor Luftur Rahman and his left-wing Aspire party, this year became the first local authority in England to offer free school meals all the way through to the end of year eleven.

Labour-run Westminster City Council is meanwhile providing meals up to and including year nine – as well as to three and four-year-olds in the borough’s nurseries.

Pressed on whether City Hall would be looking at providing secondary school meals in the absence of government action, McCartney said: “It’s something that we think government should be looking at.

“I think the mayor’s funding envelope can only deal with primary school children at the moment.”

A government spokeswoman responded: “Over a third of pupils in England now receive free school meals in education settings, compared with one in six in 2010 and we have extended eligibility several times to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century.

“We’re providing record financial support worth an average £3,300 per household. We have also raised benefits in line with inflation, increased the National Living Wage and are helping households with food, energy and other essential costs.”

The deputy mayor was speaking during a City Hall visit to Sacred Heart RC Primary School in Battersea.

Also in attendance was Zack Polanski, the Green Party’s deputy leader and a member of the London Assembly’s cost of living working group – a cross-party cohort set up to investigate the impact of the crisis on Londoners.

“It’s really clear that universal free school meals has very much been welcomed by schools,” said Polanksi.

“It’s vital that every child doesn’t go to school hungry and also that they get through the day. There’s lots of evidence as well that a nutritious meal is vital to making sure that a young person can be in a space where they’re being fostered properly and are learning.”

He added that the group was likely to make recommendations to the mayor on further actions he could take to alleviate the cost of living.

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