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Free School Meals

Volume 513: debated on Monday 12 July 2010

7. What assessment he has made of the educational achievement of pupils in receipt of free school meals in (a) Hastings and (b) England. (6962)

Information is published on an annual basis on the performance of all pupils, including those eligible for free school meals, and it can be accessed on the Department’s website. We have made a clear commitment to narrowing attainment gaps between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers through the pupil premium. We will announce more details of our proposals in due course.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will she confirm that the children who are eligible for free school meals will qualify for the pupil premium? Those who have high numbers of children on free school meals in our constituencies, as I do in Hastings, are looking forward to having that advantage to help our children do well.

We are looking at the best measure to ensure that we can target extra money at students. It is a question of ensuring that we have a system that is attached to the child, the child’s background and the particular school. We will be able to say more about that shortly. However, we are clear that extra money will follow the student.

Thanks to the previous Labour Government, a further 8,000 pupils in Wolverhampton now benefit from free school meals. As somebody who benefited from free school meals, I know that there is a link between nutrition and the ability of pupils from lower income families to do better at school. Does the Minister acknowledge that link, and will she extend the pilot scheme in Wolverhampton and roll it out throughout the country?

I recognise the link, and I agree with the hon. Lady. However, we are in difficult financial circumstances and unfortunately we were unable to extend free school meals simply because it was an unfunded pledge. However, I recognise the hon. Lady’s point, which was well made.

After 13 years of the previous Government, only 75 free school meals pupils gained three As at A-level. That is a disgrace. What do the Government propose to do about it?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a scandal that, after 13 years of a Labour Government, the greatest predictor of achievement at school is still parents’ income. That is precisely why the coalition is so committed to introducing a pupil premium and investing in early years. It is also why the Prime Minister appointed the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) to conduct a review of life chances.

The publication last week of figures showing, contrary to claims by the Health Secretary, the biggest increase in the take-up of school meals, proves that Labour’s policy on school food worked. The work of people such as Jamie Oliver was also successful. Does the Minister wish to reconsider the coalition’s reversal of those successful policies, as the Government let the junk food industry call the tune and snatch free healthy school meals from the poorest half million children in England?

I think that Jamie Oliver did the nation a great service in raising the issue of standards in school food, but the next stage is for the Government to take forward, particularly on take-up. I was pleased that take-up of school meals has increased, but there is a lot more work to do.