David Laws – 2014 Speech on Free Infant School Meals


Below is the text of the speech made by David Laws, the then Schools Minister, in Birmingham on 11 July 2014.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference today.

I am delighted to be here and to be able to thank you in person for all your hard work which you do and also – crucially this year – for the massive and successful effort which many of you are putting in to deliver the government’s policy of universal free infant school meals from this September.

I was reading recently about a research study into school food in the north of England.

In the study, around 40 children from 2 schools were provided with state-funded breakfast and lunch. The study reported how the meals improved the pupils’ behaviour.

What was the date of this study? It was not 2007, or even 1997. It was from 1907.

History of free school meals

In the mid-19th century, charities such as the Destitute Children’s Dinner Society raised money to provide meals for poor children.

Manchester provided meals for its poor and badly nourished children in 1879.

A similar scheme ran in Bradford, where the local school board argued that if the state were to take charge of educating pupils during the day it should take charge of feeding them as well.

These pioneers were taking a huge risk.

Incredibly, they were breaking the law in those days by providing these meals and could have been forced to stop.

Yet they understood clearly that, without a healthy meal, children would be less able to concentrate and succeed in school.

Pupils weren’t slow to realise their potential and take them up.

One of the first dinner ladies, Miss Cuff, reported that while on day one 13 children declined her oatmeal porridge, the next day this dropped to just 2 and from the third onwards her cuisine was eaten and enjoyed by all.

At first, the arguments that there should be national provision of free school meals fell on deaf ears.

To the Westminster establishment the idea seemed too radical, too expensive, too difficult and questionable in ideological terms.

Then, as now, there will always be people who find excuses to resist change.

But, gradually, people began to listen.

Recruitment of young men for the Boer War of 1899 to 1902 highlighted the under-nourishment of many of our children, and there was a new focus on the importance of healthy eating.

In 1906, we saw the passing of the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act.

This gave local authorities the green light to spend public money on school food – and crucially – money from the treasury in order to do so.

The trail-blazers of 1906 lit a torch that would be taken up by people like Jamie Oliver, the School Food Plan team and many in this room a hundred years later.

Take up of free and paid for meals increased dramatically during the Second World War – from just 3% at its outset, to over 30% at its conclusion.

Come 1946, the day of our now much loved ‘dinner lady’ dawned: popularity of school meals had grown so much that paid assistants were introduced to supervise children as they ate their lunch.

And in June 1949, the number of school dinners reached nearly 3 million, over half of the total school population.

Take up reached a high water mark in 1974, when 70% of pupils ate school meals.

But one thing is clear: since that peak in the 1970s, the number of children receiving school meals has been in steady decline.

In the 1980s, the then government cut back on free school meal entitlement, and removed some of the standards designed to ensure healthy meals.

Take up of meals, and the quality of much food, went into steep decline – with a fall in the proportion of children taking school meals from roughly 7 in 10 to just 4 in 10.

That has been bad for attainment in schools. It has been bad for children’s health and concentration. It has undermined the socialisation which comes from children sitting down together each day and eating together.

And the removal of free meals has been an extra pressure on family budgets which has particularly hit low income families who take the initiative to get into work, but who then find that they lose their entitlement to free meals which can be worth almost £1,500 per year for a family with 3 children.

Free school meals are sometimes regarded as an aspiration and idea from the political left.

But I regard this as a common sense policy for the mainstream majority.

I happen to have the old-fashioned view that given that these children are the responsibility of the school and the state for around 7 hours a day, the least we can do is ensure that they eat healthily.

Many of our minds are now on this September, when infants will have a new entitlement to a healthy meal at school.

This policy is the latest milestone in the long history of school meals.

And it is one of the most important.

It is the biggest expansion of free school meals in over 65 years.

1.5 million additional pupils will become entitled to a free meal.

Now every step forward in the last 100 years has had its critics.

But remember that the work you do has a proud and long-standing heritage. You are part of a progressive movement that has always had one overriding priority: to improve school food.

The School Food Plan

It should come as no surprise that there is strong public feeling about school meals.

Whether we enjoyed them or not, they are a nostalgic part of British life.

Every parent wants their child to be able to eat healthily.

The nutritional quality of school meals has rightly been at the centre of recent debate. Demand for healthier, more nutritious, school meals has come from parents, schools, school cooks, caterers, academics and celebrity chefs.

Successive governments have responded by working with schools and their caterers to improve the standards of school meals, ensuring that they contain more healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables, and less unhealthy foods, such as fat, salt, and sugar.

But it is the work that all of you do that turns these standards into a reality.

The quality of school meals has continued to improve, thanks to the hard work of school cooks, caterers, teachers, parents and nutritionists, and we can now look back on turkey twizzlers as an unfortunate blip in the proud history of school meals.

But it was clear to me, and I am sure to many of you, that more needed to done.

That is why the coalition government commissioned John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby to undertake an independent review of school food, to look at how school food was being provided across the country.

I am hugely grateful to John, Henry, Myles and all those who contributed to the review.

The review confirmed that many schools now do a brilliant job of producing healthy, tasty, school meals and promoting the value of healthy eating.

But the review also found that there is still work to be done. There is still too much food with little or no nutritional value, low take-up of school meals and too many children eating packed lunches.

Many parents mistakenly imagine that a packed lunch is the healthiest option.

In fact, the evidence is that fewer than 1% of packed lunches meet the school food standards.

So, almost exactly 1 year ago to this day, the results of the School Food Plan were published and John Vincent came to this very stage to tell you what he and Henry had learnt, and what the government had committed to do next.

The plan contained both actions for government and for the school food sector. Like John and Henry, once we knew what needed to be done, we wanted to get straight on with improving the quality and increasing the take-up of school food.

Those of you here yesterday heard from Myles Bremner about the fantastic achievements in just 1 year. For example:

  • the new cooking and nutrition curriculum for all pupils up to the age of 14, which becomes statutory at the start of next term
  • new training materials, which focus on school food, in the headteacher training curriculum
  • work with Magic Breakfast to set up self-sufficient breakfast clubs in schools
  • significant work beginning to increase the take-up of good school food

And importantly, we have developed clearer, easier to implement, school food standards, which we published on 17 June, alongside practical and down-to-earth guidance for schools and their caterers. These regulations will become statutory in January 2015.

Universal free school meals

The plan also recommended that the government should offer free school meals for all children in primary schools.

This was a big and radical idea; but it wasn’t a new one.

Durham and Newham and other parts of the country had already piloted universal free school meals.

The results were clear.

Good, healthy school food, combined with universal provision, had a positive effect on all pupils, but particularly on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Universal provision increased take-up among the disadvantaged who are eligible for meals, but don’t always take them up.

They removed the stigma of ‘being a free meals kid’.

They meant that the 1 in 4 children from working families, but who nevertheless live in poverty, got a meal for the first time.

When I visited a school recently in south London, I was moved when the headteacher told me about 1 parent who currently just misses out on free school meals, because she is in a low income job, being in tears after being told of the new entitlement, because of the positive impact it would have on her family’s budget.

Some people in the media seem to think our country is made up of very poor people on benefits who are the only ones needing financial help, and then the so called ‘middle classes’, who they view as all earning £100,000 or more each year.

But most people aren’t very poor or very rich. They are getting by. On £15,000, or £20,000, or £25,000. As a teacher in that London school said to me last week, ‘If you are a parent in London on £18,000 with 3 children, you don’t feel rich.’

This policy will make a huge difference to family budgets in these hard times. And do not worry about whether we are wasting money on families who can afford the meals – we are not paying for free meals in Eton, Westminster or Rugby private schools.

The pilots also showed that when universal free school meals were implemented, children were less likely to eat crisps and unhealthy packed lunches during the school day, and more likely to eat healthy food instead.

And, most importantly, there was a positive impact on children’s levels of literacy and numeracy.

Crucially, the pilots showed that to achieve the benefits of the policy it has to be a universal offer – to all children.

The pilots in which entitlement was only extended modestly to low income working families did not see the attainment and other benefits which we want to secure.

So this is a universal entitlement which we’re introducing not just because it’s popular with parents, though it most certainly is, but because the evidence shows that this is the right thing to do – the only way to secure the improved outcomes we want to see.

There are some who are against this policy as a point of principle. They don’t think it is the job of government to make sure all children get a healthy lunch.

Like those who blocked the first moves to provide healthy meals to school children 100 years ago, they argue it is too expensive; too radical; too difficult.

Government does not share that position.

We cannot allow some siren voices to undermine a policy that will save ordinary parents money and improve children’s education and health.

Left to their own devices, those who want to undermine this policy would take us back in time, unwinding over 100 years of progress on school food.

Government will not allow that to happen.

And that is why it is so important that we work together to make this policy a stunning success in September.

If we get this right, no one will be able to take it away – because it will be so popular with parents that no politician would dare.

That is the prize we are all working for.


I do not underestimate the challenges this poses to some schools – which will have been passed on to you and I’m especially grateful to LACA and the School Food Trust for the support they have given.

But I am determined and confident that we can work together to overcome them in some schools.

In the pilot areas, schools, catering providers and local authorities demonstrated that it is possible to deliver this policy of good quality hot meals in schools in the timescale we have allowed.

For some schools, the transition will present few challenges.

But I do understand that for others the challenge is much greater.

Every infant and primary school should by now have a plan in place to deliver universal free school meals to all of their infant pupils from September.

And the government is providing the necessary financial support. We have allocated over £1 billion of revenue funding to this policy over the next 2 years.

We have allocated £150 million of capital this year, specifically to help schools improve their kitchen and dining facilities. And for small schools, which I know can face particular challenges, we are making an additional £22.5 million available this year.

We will keep the availability of that small schools funding for future years under review to establish if we need continuation in the future.

In addition, we are funding a support service run by school food experts – including, of course, LACA and their main partner organisation, the Children’s Food Trust. That support service is doing a brilliant job in supporting school and caterers to find local solutions to their own individual problems, and I am enormously grateful to everyone involved for their hard work. Thank you to the whole, fantastic, team.

It is clear to me that schools are doing a truly brilliant job in preparing for this milestone.

I simply do not share the pessimistic view of some that headteachers do not have the ability to deliver on bold, ambitious challenges, with the support of many of you in this room.

Through local authorities and the support service I just mentioned, I have been tracking the progress schools towards meeting this important commitment.

And I can announce today that based on evidence from local authorities, schools and the support service, over 99% of schools now have a plan in place to deliver universal free school meals in September.

We are aware of fewer than 100 schools which still need further work to devise a delivery strategy, and the department and the support service are now working through, school by school, to offer support and ensure all schools are on track to deliver at the start of term.

This is a tribute to the phenomenal efforts of everyone in this room and headteachers, school catering teams, local authorities and governors up and down the country.

Of course, this does not mean everything will be perfect on day 1.

As has been reported, some schools will provide a cold meal initially, until capital works are complete.

In the medium term we expect all schools to be giving a hot food option – which is what is really necessary to meet the school food standards consistently.

And of course many schools will be bringing in meals from outside caterers, rather than cooking them on site – as we all know they do now.

Many of these meals are excellent, and some schools will want to continue this approach.

But let me be clear that I know many schools are raising their sights and want to bring back the on-site kitchens which were lost in the 1980s and 1990s in many parts of the country.

Some have already done this with our £150 million capital injection.

Others will want to do so in the future, after they have seen the increase in take up.

I commit today to looking very closely, after September, at what the government can do to support schools further in creating the right facilities and school environment to maximise the quality of food and the experience of eating it.

It would be unrealistic to think that in just 1 year we could rebuild the entire school estate, and reverse decades of neglect in some areas.

But we will commit to support this policy over time.

And I was not willing to allow the search for perfection to get in the way of delivering a step change in healthy eating which is needed right now.

And to the remaining very small number of schools who do not yet have a plan in place for September: my message is to work with your caterers and with the support service to ensure successful delivery.

They can give you practical help, and show you how other schools have risen to the challenge.

We will do everything in our power to help you deliver for your children.

Take Cheam Fields School in Sutton for instance. Following the announcement of September’s roll-out, the school stated publicly that they would not be able to implement the policy.

But after working closely with the support service, they now have a plan in place and are on track to deliver free meals to all their infant pupils from September.

In fact, I visited them last week and not only do they have a new pod kitchen, but the children have also composed a free school meal song!

I am excited that where many thought it impossible, there is a way of making this happen – and it is you in this room making it possible.

Cheam Fields School proves that, by working together, we are not only capable of changing systems, but also cultures and mindsets.

I realise that many of you are still on the journey Cheam Fields has made, and you are grappling with the challenge of delivering this policy.

I have seen first hand that organising school catering is not unlike a small military operation.

But I have also seen how much difference you – the unsung heroes of our children’s nutrition and education – can make.

You are doing an outstanding job. And the numbers prove it.

Of course there will be challenges along the way and the support service is continuing to provide support and guidance in the lead up to and over the summer holiday. In fact, the support service will continue to be available until the end of 2015, to help schools as they move forwards on that journey towards delivering a really excellent, sustainable school meals service.

But thanks to you, we are on track to defeat the sceptics who said we’d never do this; who argued that this shouldn’t be a priority.

I am enormously grateful to all of you in this room for all your hard work to make a reality of this exciting policy.

And I am grateful too to headteachers and their teams up and down the country, who are working tirelessly to make a success of universal infant free school meals at the same time as introducing other important reforms, such as a new national curriculum and assessment arrangements.

So it is a real privilege to be able today to speak to LACA members who are the cornerstone of this and to thank you for the work you have done and are continuing to do as we head to September.

This policy is going to be a success, thanks to your work.

It is going to be one of the landmark social achievements of this coalition government – good for attainment, good for health, great for British food, and good for hard working families.

Ignore the critics who want to snipe from the sidelines.

Together we are going to deliver something of which all of us will be very proud and which will make our country a better place for children to grow up in.