Newham school pupils with free meals see attainment and diet improvements

Pupils who took up free meals at Newham’s schools enjoyed boosts in their test results and diets.

The borough took part in two-year government pilot which extended the provision to families not on benefits.

Their eating habits also saw an improvement, with more youngsters choosing vegetables over crisps.

But the report, published by the Children’s Food Trust, suggested the pilot did not have an impact on their attendance or weight.

Children eating school meals were found to have made around “two months more progress” compared to pupils in similar areas.

“Neither the universal nor extended entitlement pilot reduced the amount of time pupils were absent from school,” the report outlined.

“(This) suggests that the increases in attainment must arise as a result of improvements in productivity whilst at school.”

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But the report authors said it the pilot did not go as far as showing boosts in pupil behaviour - according to their parents.

It added: “It is possible that classroom behaviour might have improved in a way that was not picked up by changes in parental perceptions of behaviour.”

The pilot, which cost �12 million, was prompted by research showing that school dinners had higher nutrition than packed lunches.

Pupils taking part tended to eat two hot meals a day, including rice, pasta and potatoes not cooked in oil.

They were also more likely to opt for water instead of soft drinks, but the amount of whole pieces of fruit eaten decreased.

Newham Council extended its free school meals programme beyond the pilot.

It offers support to 3,300 households with children who are not eligible for them.

Judy Hargadon, from the Children’s Food Trust, said: “These results show how important it is to ensure every child living in poverty gets a free school meal and - at the very least - that we keep good school meals affordable for everyone else.

“What’s particularly interesting is that researchers say the impact on attainment seemed be strongest among those from lower income backgrounds

“It’s a reminder for policymakers, head teachers, local authorities and parents that investing in good food for children at school pays back a big return for their diet and education.”