When all primary school pupils in Newham and Durham were offered free school meals, attainment levels rose. Pupils in these areas made between 4 and 8 weeks more progress over a two year period than similar pupils in other areas. That is the main finding of new research published today by a consortium comprising the Institute for Fiscal Studies, NatCen Social Research and Bryson Purdon Social Research.

These are significant effects. But the study was not able to show what drove these improvements in attainment. And extending such a policy to all primary school pupils in England could cost around £1 billion per year (NB: this £ is a 2012 calculation).

Commenting on the results, Ellen Greaves, Research Economist at the IFS said:

"Providing all primary school pupils in Newham and Durham with free school meals led to improvements in educational attainment in those areas. But this policy would be expensive to roll out and may disproportionately benefit children from middle and higher income families, as children from the poorest families are already entitled to receive free school meals. It is also unclear whether the effects on attainment could be replicated in less deprived areas. Whilst the results are encouraging, there is scope for more research before making a decision to roll out this policy to other areas.”