Free school meals could bridge the gap between rich and poor pupils, according to a new report released this week.
This was based on the findings of a two-year £40m pilot scheme that saw free school meals made available for all primary school children in Durham and Newham. A third trial in Wolverhampton saw free school meals extended to families receiving working tax credits.
The research found significant improvements in the attainment of pupils, as well as benefits for diet and take-up of healthy school meals.
Primary school children advanced by two months on average, with the results most pronounced in those from poorer homes.
Most pupils in the universal pilot areas of Durham and Newham took up the offer of free school meals.
Around nine in 10 primary school pupils were taking at least one school meal per week by the end of the pilot compared with around six in 10 similar pupils in comparable areas.
The study found that children were more likely to eat hot food, including vegetables and carbohydrates. They were also more likely to drink water rather than fizzy drinks.
Judy Hargadon, chief executive of the Children's Food Trust, described the findings as "serious food for thought".
"The investment in the pilots is dwarfed by the spiralling costs of poor diet to the NHS and our national spend on efforts to close the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and their peers," she said.
"What's particularly interesting is that researchers say the impact on attainment seemed be strongest among those from lower income backgrounds, and those who weren't doing so well at school before."
Hargadon added that feedback from parents taking part in the Wolverhampton pilot was also positive.
The report said the universal approach cost the equivalent of around £220 per primary school pupil over two years.
Wolverhampton and Newham councils have opted to continue their schemes beyond the pilot stage and Durham is now offering school meals at a reduced price.
A Department for Education spokeswoman told the BBC: "We are committed to ensuring that free school meals are available to those pupils who need them most, but it is not viable to continue the universal pilots in the current financial climate.
"It is right to focus schools' budgets on the government's priority of directly raising attainment for all children."
The research was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Bryson Purdon Social Research.
Lynda Mitchell, chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) said the research confirms what the organsiation has known for some time: "Healthy school meals not only improve concentration and attainment, but also have other wide-reaching benefits.
"The Free School Meals Pilot scheme also identified other positive outcomes, such as effective partnership working, a shift in the types of food eaten at lunchtime and an increase in take-up prompted by factors such as cost-savings, improved dining facilities and the quality of food available."
She added: The report underpins the importance of a healthy meal and the positive outcomes that can be achieved, and I hope that this will be given careful consideration in future discussions on school food policy.”
The results of the pilot have been revealed just weeks after education secretary Michael Gove announced a new review of school food, to be carried out by Leon co-founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent.
By Janie Manzoori-Stamford
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