Hunger in the classroom is linked to lower attainment, poor behaviour, and worse health outcomes. In the last few years, UK policymakers have tried to reduce the number of children with poor nutrition by expanding school food initiatives, including providing free school meals to all children in Reception through Year 2 in English schools. The Labour Party has promised to extend this free meal entitlement to children in Years 3 to 6 (ages 7-11) in England in order to ‘benefit the educational attainment and health of all children’.
Universal free school meals can improve attainment in some circumstances. A 2012 pilot study by IFS researchers and others found that Year 6 students in Newham and Durham, where all primary children were offered free school lunches, made around two months’ additional progress over a two-year period compared to similar children in other areas. In this observation we argue that extending the policy nationwide would come at a significant cost and might not lead to similar gains. Other policies, such as offering free breakfast clubs (as is the case in Wales and as trialled in England) might be a cheaper and more effective way to improve both education and health outcomes.
Counting the costs
Labour is proposing to take a benefit that is currently means-tested – available only to pupils whose families meet certain criteria of disadvantage – and extend it to all students. Universal programmes can bring benefits, such as removing the stigma that might otherwise prevent eligible students from taking up free meals. However, universal benefits are also costly: rather than targeting funds at the most disadvantaged, they spread the money across all children, including those whose families are currently paying for school meals.
This ‘deadweight loss’ can be substantial. The pilot study estimated that around 40% of the total cost was spent on providing free meals to students whose parents would otherwise have paid for a school lunch. Since these students are consuming the same meal that they would have otherwise eaten, there aren’t likely to be very many benefits for their health or attainment from having government pick up the tab. On the other hand, this represents a significant giveaway to their families. For example, the policy would cost £11.50 per week for a family with one child newly eligible for free meals, around a sixth of the £70 that similar families spend on food each week.
Currently, the government pays £2.30 for each meal taken under the universal infant free school meals programme introduced in 2014. Taking into account the number of pupils in Years 3-6 who are not already eligible for free school meals and the pilot’s estimated take-up rate of 90%, extending free meals to all primary children would cost the government around £800 million per year.
In addition, there are likely to be other upfront costs from one-time investments such as renovating school kitchens and cafeterias to provide additional meals. The government provided £170 million over two years to meet these costs during the recent infant free school meals roll-out. Since Labour’s proposal would extend free meals to four new year groups rather than three, the additional one-time funding needed to upgrade facilities could be as much as £225 million.
Although the extension of free school meals would only apply to primary school children in England, there are public finance implications for the devolved nations as well: because Labour is proposing additional spending on this policy (paid for by levying VAT on private school fees), the block grants to the three devolved nations will increase under the Barnett formula. The new spending in England would result in £150 million in additional funding for the three devolved nations each year, plus one-time additional funding of around £45 million related to the upfront costs. This brings the total cost of extending free school meals to all primary pupils to around £950 million each year, with upfront costs of as much as £270 million.
Broadening the benefits?
The pilot found that Year 6 students in areas of universal provision made an additional two months’ progress over the course of two years relative to similar students in other areas. These are significant effects, roughly the same size as the benefits from national programmes such as the “literacy hour”. However, it’s far from certain that universal free school meals would be as effective if rolled out nationally.
One reason for caution is the difference between the pilot areas and the average English local authority. Both Newham and Durham are relatively disadvantaged. If pupils in better-off areas are more likely to pay for school meals or to have healthier packed lunches, the gains from making school lunches free to all students are likely to be smaller.
Further, while the pilot study found that universal free school meals improved test scores, it wasn’t able to pinpoint how these improvements came about. Evidence from other countries suggests that more nutritious meals can reduce hunger and keep students healthier, which can in turn improve behaviour in the classroom or reduce the number of illness-related absences. However, the pilot study found little support for any of these mechanisms: offering universal free lunches did not improve parents’ impressions of their children’s focus and behaviour; absence rates in the pilot areas remained about the same as in the similar comparison areas; and although children in the pilot areas had healthier foods at lunch, they still ate roughly the same amount of junk food over the course of the day and were no more likely to be at a healthy weight. Without understanding what’s driving the headline academic gains, it’s difficult to know whether the relationship between free school meals and test scores would be the same in other areas with a different local context.
Rather than providing free school lunches for all children, policymakers wanting to tackle student hunger could support school breakfasts instead. IFS research has found that support for a one-year breakfast programme in disadvantaged schools delivered similar academic benefits to universal free school meal provision (though the gains were higher in Year 2 than Year 6). The breakfast clubs also significantly improved behaviour and concentration, and reduced absences – and did so at around one-tenth of the cost per pupil of universal free school meals.
Extending free school meals to all primary school children would cost around £950 million each year. It would not directly benefit the poorest children, who are already entitled to free lunches. While there is some evidence it might raise attainment overall, we don't understand how or why, and so the effect of extending this nationwide is uncertain. In the context of constrained public resources it is important to be much clearer about effectiveness before spending a large amount of money on a new universal entitlement.
IFS Election 2017 analysis is being produced with funding from the Nuffield Foundation as part of its work to ensure public debate in the run-up to the general election is informed by independent and rigorous evidence. For more information, go to http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org.
The results of the breakfast club evaluation featured in this work were updated in December 2019. See the revised report here.