It’s nearly a year since the government introduced free school meals to infants across the country.
From September 2014, every child from reception up to Year Two was eligible for a free school lunch every day.
Flexibility and communication is the key for us in this, as well as the fantastic work of staff
But how has it worked? For some schools, it meant getting a new kitchen fitted or moving lessons around to ensure the school hall was free to cater for so many children.
But the project has been hailed as a success, as children have been provided with healthy meals to encourage a balanced diet.
Research shows that healthy pupils are more likely to be better learners and to get more from their school day.
The uptake of free school meals for infants in Portsmouth has increased significantly, with 70 per cent of infant pupils enjoying a free school meal every day.
To meet this demand ISS Education is now producing more than 8,000 meals a day.
Prior to the introduction of free school meals, it was catering for approximately 4,800 meals per day – a growth of more than 60 per cent.
Councillor Neill Young, cabinet member for children and education at Portsmouth City Council, says: ‘Here in Portsmouth we have really embraced the changes and tried to ensure that we could deliver them as quickly as possible in line with the government proposals.
‘We have invested quite a bit of money in the school kitchens.
‘It’s about making sure that children have a good meal in the middle of the day.
‘It does help them with their learning and development and helps them become more alert.’
He adds: ‘We know that children are getting at least one meal a day with good nutritional value.
‘The take-up has been really good. The children are enjoying the food as well.
‘There have been some schools that have found it a real challenge. Those schools we have worked closely with to try to tackle those issues.
‘A lot of our schools are Victorian buildings so they don’t always lend themselves to that.’
College Park Infant School in North End is one that has had issues with introducing free school meals.
Cllr Young says: ‘We have invested in a new kitchen and extended the dining area so it doesn’t impact on school activities.
‘We are working with Victorian buildings so there are challenges.
‘But the teachers have really embraced this and helped us make this work and developed their lesson plans so that they can ensure the space is available.
‘Hats off to the teachers as well because they have made this happen.’
Debbie Anderson is the headteacher at College Park Infant School in North End.
She says: ‘We now have to have staggered lunchtimes for each year group, which has had a knock-on effect on timetabling curriculum activities as the hall which is used for dining is now required for longer over the lunchtime period.
‘We have made the situation work. Flexibility and communication is the key for us in this, as well as the fantastic work of staff.
‘Overall it has been a success but it is not an ideal situation as our hot meals are presently cooked at one school, cold food prepared at a different school and both have to then be transported to the school.
‘When our new school kitchen is built on site, we hope it will be even more successful.
‘Uptake is very varied, depending upon the choices on the three-week menu. Some parents still prefer for their child to bring in a packed lunch from home, particularly if they are a fussy eater.
‘What is important is that all children have a healthy balanced meal at lunchtimes so they can make the very most of their learning in school during the afternoon.’
Across Hampshire County Council, which includes Fareham, Gosport and Havant, 60,000 meals have been served – a rise of 20,000 school meals a day.
Over the past nine months, that’s more than nine million meals.
The food is provided by Hampshire Catering Services (HC3S).
The council’s executive member for education, councillor Peter Edgar says: ‘In Hampshire, between schools and the council, we have coped well with the introduction of free school meals.
‘Staff in schools and across the council worked with contractors to pull out all the stops to ensure work to school kitchen facilities to increase capacity was completed on time – working late into the evenings where necessary.
‘The staff at HC3S have been doing a fantastic job alongside our schools, to ensure all meals are dished up on time.
‘To be delivering a million meals a month in 450 infant, junior and primary schools is no mean feat.
‘It has been a huge undertaking, but one that we carefully planned for, acting swiftly to ensure schools were prepared.’
Colin Harris is the headteacher at Warren Park Primary School in Leigh Park, Havant.
He says: ‘I did think there would be more take-up than there has been. It’s been high but I thought there would be 100 per cent take-up.
‘Still, it has been a success. It’s been a good move.
‘It’s very good for the children. One of the things we have been able to do is have quality food.
‘We can take the children on that journey to discover food they have never tried before. Taking them down that road is really important.
‘I don’t agree with the government about much, but this I do agree with.’
Mr Harris says he thinks the project should be expanded to include junior school pupils as well.
‘The whole idea of every child in a primary school having a free school meal should happen,’ he adds.
‘We have got between 140 and 150 pupils who come in every day for free breakfasts.
‘We have never charged them.
‘What that has enabled us to do is to educate the children that food is a basic need to keep ourselves functioning.
‘They have a nice, calm start to the day.’