The claim

“The government will continue to support and encourage schools to this end and support the improvements that have been achieved in recent years in schools’ food provision and food education”.
Michael Gove, August 2011

The background

That claim comes from a letter written by the Education Secretary to Jamie Oliver, who fears that all his efforts to banish turkey twizzlers and other junk food from school canteens may be in danger of unravelling.

Oliver said he was “very worried” after meeting Mr Gove and getting few hard promises on the Coalition’s commitment to healthy school dinners.

The 2005 TV series Jamie’s School Dinners, and the Feed Me Better campaign that came after it, led to changes in the law on meals for pupils. Now the celebrity chef says: “The progress we’ve made seems to be at risk.”

Did Jamie really change school dinners? And is the coalition undermining his work?

The analysis

Labour were impressed enough by Oliver’s campaign to commit to a £280m school lunch grant over three years from 2008 to 2011 for schools to spend on ingredients, cooks and kitchen equipment.

It’s difficult to track exactly how that money has trickled down on to the pupil’s plate, but there is some incomplete evidence that suggests the average amount of money spent per pupil may have increased significantly.

The School Food Trust, the quango set up by the then-government to monitor its reforms, has figures based on feedback from a subset of schools where the local authority provides school dinners directly.

In 2005/06, the average spend on ingredients was 52p per primary school pupil. That rose to 69p per child in 200/09 and it’s currently at 67p.

In secondary schools, the average spend was 67p per pupil in 2005/06, rising to a high of 88p in the last financial year.

As well as boosting funds, the last government changed the law on the nutritional standards expected of school caterers, whether in-house or private, after consulting a panel of experts.

Vending machines selling sweets and fizzy drinks were banned, and minimum standards of quality were set for a range of food.

For the first time, for example, manufactured meat products containing offal like brain, lung, rectum, spinal cord, testicle and udder were banned.

As well as banishing rectum-burgers into the culinary history books, the last government also earmarked £150 million of targeted funding between 2008 and 2011 to provide kitchens and dining rooms in schools with inadequate facilities.

Has the coalition kept up the good work?

The money that used to be set aside for the school lunch grant remains, although it’s included in the Department for Education’s (DfE) baseline budget and is no longer ring-fenced.

That doesn’t appear to have led to a mass change of spending priorities, according to the School Food Trust, who say two-thirds of councils will continue to use the money to fund school lunches at the same level.

But as Oliver points out, there is the danger that less money will be set aside for food as the pressure on schools’ budgets continues.

The statutory nutritional standards remain in locally-funded state schools, but Mr Gove has made clear that the rapidly increasing number of academies and the coalition’s new free schools are exempt from having to follow them.

So that’s 1.2 million pupils not covered by the law, and Mr Gove has said he wants all existing state schools to be given the option to become academies.

Again, that doesn’t automatically mean all of them will choose to ignore the guidelines, but we don’t know what the effect will be until the School Food Trust completes research on that question.

The Targeted Capital Fund for kitchens and dining rooms has been abandoned by the coalition, and the scrapping of the previous government’s Building Schools for the Future porject means there is less chance of a school getting hold of the capital needed to build or refurbish its canteen.

The verdict

It’s too early to gauge properly the effects of current government policy on school meals. We don’t yet know how many schools will spend less on food with the end of ring-fenced funding, or how many academies and free schools will choose to ignore the nutritional guidelines laid down by the last government.

If budgetary pressures continue and the academies programme continues to expand, there’s good reason to believe an opportunity to improve pupils’ academic performance and the long-term health of the nation could be missed.

On the other hand, it could be good news for sellers of rectum-, brain- and udder-packed sausages.

By Patrick Worrall

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