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School Meals

Volume 459: debated on Thursday 26 April 2007

We do not require hot meals to be served in schools, but we encourage their provision through funding. Transitional funding for school food—£220 million for 2005-08—is conditional upon local authorities developing plans to begin the reintroduction of hot meals. In addition, schools and local authorities are encouraged to use their capital funding to ensure that adequate kitchens are in place. That will be supported by an additional targeted capital fund for school kitchens from 2009.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer so far as it goes, but I am sure that he is aware that three years ago this month Conservative-controlled Essex county council scrapped the school meal service for primary schools. Many schools have made alternative arrangements, but not all of them have done so, as some do not have sufficient resources or capacity. I ask the Minister to consider in particular three such schools: Montgomery infant, Montgomery county junior and St. Michael’s primary. Those schools draw pupils predominantly from families whose fathers and mothers are in Her Majesty’s armed forces, so while dad is sent off to Iraq or Afghanistan the children do not have hot school—

We are working closely with the School Food Trust wherever there are gaps in provision with regard to hot meals in schools, at both primary and secondary level. However, we should keep this issue in context, as there have been developments in recent years, not least the additional funding worth almost £500 million from 2005 through to 2011. The national picture is that hot meals are not served in 5 per cent. of primary schools and 0.1 per cent. of secondary schools, which equates to three secondary schools. Having said that, I accept that there are issues and pockets of problems that we have to tackle, and we are doing so in a number of ways, not least through our capital programme and the devolved formula capital, which is devolved directly to schools. As I said, we also aim to announce later this year specific targeted capital for school kitchens.

You have done that to me twice now, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Minister share my deep concern at the ongoing decline in the take-up of school meals, and is it not doubly ironic that the imposition of the deep-fried standard has actually contributed significantly to that decline? Will he adopt a more co-ordinated approach with Ministers from other Departments with an interest in this matter and review and reconsider that standard? Will he also prioritise the provision of ovens, so that the switch away from deep-frying facilities in our schools can be speeded up?

On deep fried, we are doing exactly the right thing. The provision of chips, for example, is limited to twice a week, and we would not want to encourage—as some would—chips being passed through the school gates. We are taking exactly the right steps, working with the School Food Trust to ensure high nutritional standards in schools.

On take-up, I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to a BBC survey at the back end of last year. We anticipated take-up issues arising in the early stages—that is not uncommon—but we are working with the School Food Trust to get some more up-to-date information, and I am confident that we will meet the demanding target that we have set of a 4 per cent. increase in the take-up of school meals by March 2008, and a 10 per cent. increase by autumn 2009.

Is the problem not twofold? First, not enough families are having a hot meal at night together at home, where children can learn the basic social skills and table manners that they should learn. Secondly, too many children are snacking on junk food on the journey to and from school. The Government’s own figures, published in the School Food Trust survey in April of last year, show that 51 per cent. of parents of children at secondary school are giving them up to or more than £5 a day so that they can buy these products. Will the Government take measures to encourage families to eat at home at night round the table?

We are certainly taking measures to reduce snacking on poor-quality foods. Later this year, new standards will be put in place, which the hon. Lady will doubtless welcome, on tuck food in schools. We will also introduce as part of our five-point plan the entitlement to cook in schools. That will ensure that children from the age of 11 through to 16 are taught to cook a nutritional meal at school, which they can then do at home. Hopefully, that will have a knock-on effect, so that children can make use at home of their education in nutritional values. I am sure that that will make a big difference not just in school, but at home.