UNISON today welcomed the government’s intention to introduce free school meals to all infant school children in England.
Christine Lewis, national officer for education and children’s services, said: “UNISON has long argued that providing children with hot, healthy and nutritious meals is vital to giving them the best start in life – helping to improve their behaviour as well as boost attainment.
“We see this as real progress and a vital first step in the campaign to win free school meals for all school children.”
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced the move at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. It will come into effect from September 2014.
At present, around 400,000 children in the first three years of primary education are eligible for free school meals. Mr Clegg’s change means another 1.5 million children will not have to pay for lunches.
The change – for children in reception, year one and year two – will save parents about £400 a year, per child.
The Lib Dem leader said he would like to extend the free meals offer to all primary school children, but that was not affordable at present.
A recent review of school food by two founders of the Leon restaurant chain, for the Department for Education, concluded that packed lunches were nearly always less nutritious than a cooked meal, and that giving all children free lunches would raise academic standards.
UNISON, which represents the majority of school meals workers, had a seat on the review’s expert panel and backed its findings.
“School food staff also need recognition, more pay and better training to help them deliver a top quality service that will improve children’s health, wellbeing and educational attainment,” said Ms Lewis.
“They are often asked to quickly produce nutritious food with limited paid hours, budgets and equipment.”
The union also supported the government’s extension of existing free school meals to include English FE college students aged 16-18.