Last reviewed 23 September 2013

Judith Allen looks at the issues in the news for September.

All infants to get free school lunches

From September 2014, all infant school children in England will be eligible for free school meals.

The plans are costed at £600m, and state that universal free school meals will be provided for all Reception class, Year 1 and Year 2 children in all state-funded schools. Ministers estimate that this should save families more than £400 a year per child.

Free school meals will also be extended to disadvantaged students in further education and sixth form colleges. Currently only students in school sixth forms are eligible.

The gradual introduction of universal free school meals for all primary school children was a key recommendation of the independent School Food Plan, commissioned by the Department for Education and published in July 2013.

The report found that on average school meals cost families £437 per child per year. It also highlighted that many children living in low-income families are not currently eligible for free school meals.

The conclusions in the report were that phasing-in free school meals would lead to improvements in children’s health and attainment — findings in areas where free school meals were piloted had shown very positive results — and help families to cope with rising costs.

London primary children to receive free school meals earlier

Regardless of household income, primary school pupils in Southwark and Tower Hamlets are to benefit from free school meals.

The council plans to extend its Free Healthy School Meals (FHSM) programme, so that from September 2013, all Southwark primary school pupils will be offered a free school meal.

Southwark Council piloted its FHSM programme in 2011, before rolling it out to all primary school children in Years 2, 3 and 4 in September 2012.

Tower Hamlets Council agreed the £2.76m investment to fund free school meals for its youngest pupils in March 2013, citing their determination to improve educational achievement and opportunities for young people in Tower Hamlets, and emphasising that a healthy lunch is one of the keys to children learning better.

Learning time lost because of hunger

New research has shown primary school children in England and Wales turning up at school hungry are missing out on eight weeks of education.

The Lost Education report reveals that more than a quarter of respondents have seen an increase in the last two years in the number of children being sent to school without breakfast, with over a quarter of teachers reporting children falling asleep in class because they are hungry.

Approximately three pupils per class are turning up for school at least once a week without having had any breakfast, resulting in an inability to concentrate and an increased demand on the time of staff, say teachers, who estimate that children arriving at school hungry are losing approximately one hour of learning time that day.

The report says that if a child arrives at school hungry once a week over a school year, it adds up to 36 hours of lost learning time, rising to 7.2 days or 1.4 weeks a year, based on 5 hours of teaching time a day.

Over the course of 6 years, a pupil would have lost 8.4 weeks of learning.

Government asks for input on tax-free childcare

With the aim of shaping the way tax-free childcare can be delivered, providers and other stakeholders are being urged by the Government to complete an online survey.

Tax-free childcare vouchers are to be introduced from autumn 2015. Working lone parents or families where both parents are working but are not already receiving support through tax credits (or Universal Credit, when this is introduced), will receive a subsidy of 20% of their childcare costs up to £1200 per child per year, a maximum of £6000. The scheme will eventually be extended to all children under 12.

The new scheme will help more parents overall; however some families will be better off under the new scheme and some will be worse off.

The consultation on the design and operation of the scheme will run until October 2014.

Lack of clarity around the scheme was highlighted In August when the Childcare Voucher Providers Association (CPVA) published a report, Making Childcare Work. It suggested that employers are currently unclear about how they will support parents through tax-free childcare and called for the Government to recognise and define a clear role for employers in the new scheme.

Campaign names and shames checkout junk food sellers

With the aim of urging supermarkets to remove unhealthy snacks from checkouts and queuing areas, a new campaign has been launched.

The campaign, “Junk free checkouts”, pressing the case for change, aims to highlight the extent to which unhealthy food and drink is being sold at supermarket checkouts and queuing aisles.

Supporting the campaign is the British Dietetic Association’s (BDA) Dieticians in Obesity Management Specialist Group (DOM UK) and the Children’s Food Campaign.

Of the 1923 adults polled, 64% of whom were parents, 83% said they have been pestered by their children to buy unhealthy snacks while queuing at the supermarket, and 75% admitted to giving in to their children’s demands.

Over 90% of respondents said that junk food at the checkouts contributes to obesity in adults and children.

Pass and fail cards, created by the campaign to give to stores, are available to download from the campaign's website.