Universal Infant Free School Meals Research Released

By Jocelyn Levy | 2nd November 2020 | 9 min read

The Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) policy was introduced by the coalition Government in the 2013-14 academic year. It extended free school meals to all students in key stage 1. It sounded like a great, forward thinking move – but what’s the effect been in real terms?

Universal Infant Free School Meals improves up-take

The Education Policy Institute has done the research and provided the evidence to show the effect UIFSM has had. It looked at the effect on uptake between 2013 and 2016. Overall, UIFSM has greatly boosted the uptake of free school meals for key stage 1 students from 34 per cent of students in a given week, to 80 per cent.

That means roughly 16 per cent of key stage 1 students are still eating a packed lunch, despite the free meal on offer. We know from other research, that only 1.6 per cent of packed lunches meet the same school food standards that UIFSM is required to meet. It’s a shame some parents and students don’t use the healthy option available, but nevertheless, it’s great news that a much larger proportion of students are getting a good, hot and nutritious meal on a daily basis.

Secondary benefits of UIFSM

The research showed that schools with higher levels of up-take usually had stronger Ofsted ratings too. Perhaps the benefits of UIFSM are more than a full stomach. Teachers in the survey by EPI hinted at some wider benefits from the UIFSM policy. More than half of teachers said the policy had helped improve health of students and a third said it had a notable effect on concentration levels in class.

Part of the research involved interviewing parents as well, and those interviewed indicated that the benefits of the policy extended beyond the school walls. Parents reported that the policy helped them save money, on average £390 a year. It also saved them up to 32 hours a year. More than that though, they found the policy had helped improve their child’s diet at home: children were them more likely to eat vegetables and try new foods.

Stumbling blocks

Overall, the report was very positive about the impact of UIFSM. Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“[the report] clearly shows the benefits that free school meals bring to children and their families when schools are properly funded and supported to deliver them”

It would be remiss not to mention some of the failures of the policy too – there is room to improve. One issue, highlighted many times in the past, is that UIFSM has led to a fall in pupil premium funding for some schools. Extra funding for schools is granted on the number of pupils signed up to free school meals. UIFSM has meant that some parents are less incentivised to sign-up and therefore, funding is missed out on.

Secondly, while key stage 1 up-take figures soared under the policy, when students moved into key stage 2 and their access to free meals is denied, up-take of school meals did not significantly improve.

More needs to be done to make catering options more attractive to students beyond key stage 1. That’s what we try and do here at FasTrak. Our Cashless Catering system makes catering fast and simple even when it’s not free.

It’s great that the policy has improved the health of thousands of children in the country. But the importance of good health and nutrition doesn’t end once a child reaches year 3 of their education. If more could be done to build on the success of UIFSM and encourage older students to use the school catering services, that would be a step in the right direction.

Related links & news stories

EPI: Evaluation of Universal Infant Free School Meals

TES: ‘When pupils are hungry, cold and scared, schools can’t pull them out of poverty alone – the government must step up’