Blogs Children's Food Campaign

Levelling up the school dining table for all

Seven leading public health organisations have backed the campaign for expansion of universal school meals, Healthy Start and breakfast clubs, in their report Health of the Next Generation: Good Food for Children. Blackpool Headteacher Sarah Smith, who spoke at the report’s launch in the House of Lords, explains how universal school meals could make a huge difference in the schools she leads.

Headteacher Sarah Smith and pupils delivering Christmas parcels for local families in Blackpool. Credit: Sarah Smith

Headteacher Sarah Smith and pupils delivering Christmas parcels for local families in Blackpool. Credit: Sarah Smith

I am an Executive Headteacher leading two of the most wonderful schools in the country, up in the sunny seaside town of Blackpool, in the North West of England.

Perhaps you have visited our town and seen the miles of golden sands. Maybe you've walked down one of our piers to buy some Blackpool rock, or even bought some fish and chips eating them whilst walking through our world-famous illuminations. 

The impression this gives of the town is all bright lights, happy memories and fun times.

According to the government Index of Multiple Deprivation both of my schools are in the top ten most deprived wards in the country. I’ve worked at Christ the King Catholic Academy on the Grange Park estate for 15 years. The school has 41% of its pupils entitled to free school meals. Our one form entry academy takes children from age 3 to 11 and supports them on their journey through the primary phase of their education. 

At the second school, St Cuthbert’s in South Shore, where children join us from two years of age up to 11, 46% of our pupils are entitled to free school meals.  The view from our playground is of the “Big One” fairground ride at the well-known Blackpool Pleasure Beach. 

The sad thing is, many of our families that live in the town can’t afford to take their children to the amusement park and, if I am honest, very few have actually even been to the beach with their parents.  Towns like Blackpool flow with the tourist season. Those parents that have employment in the town are often without work in the winter, claiming benefits and struggling day to day. 

The cost-of-living crisis means that the funds they saved last year haven't gone as far this year.   Life for many in our town is hard.  It is hard, but it is not hopeless.

The joy of leading two educational establishments in the town means that I can make a difference to 484 children. Many children enter our school well below the national average, with speech and language issues, self-care concerns and poor social skills.  Over time, with nurture, love, skill and compassion the teams I work alongside, change this.  If children are with us from the very start of their educational journey (so age 4 or younger) we accelerate their progress significantly.  Most children leave our school at or above that national average in English and Mathematics.

However, in order for our pupils to achieve this success, it is a relentless task and that job continues to get harder and harder each year.


Our schools are already making a difference

When I joined the profession as a teacher in 1998 it was to make a difference.  What a very different landscape it was then.

Back then the school didn’t provide a free breakfast for most of its pupils, or offer the use of a free mini laundrette on site free of charge through a wonderful organisation called SMOL, or support families with basic toiletries through a partnership with the Hygiene Bank, or give fuel vouchers to families that are struggling to heat their homes.  We do now.

Back then the school didn’t provide free use of the school grounds to support the Holiday and Food (HAF) programme to support families during school holidays or support families by distributing frozen meals donated by local supermarkets.  We do now.

When people hear our story, meet our children, or hear of the issues in our town they offer to help. That might be financial or practical, cash to reduce fuel poverty or donations of old school uniform, or volunteering their time to drive a minibus on outings so we can enrich our curriculum and broaden their horizons. 

One thing I know is that people are so generous.

However well received these contributions are to the life of our school - and they really do enrich our lives - they are unpredictable and unreliable and so we can’t plan.  We need longer term solutions.

If we are going to make sustainable progress for our children in education the proposal of an extension to the Universal Free School Meal programme, which currently only serves our infants in Key Stage 1, absolutely has my vote.


Superpowers of healthy food for all

It is well known that children from deprived parts of the country have less access to daily fruit and vegetables.  The cost-of-living crisis means that the expense of fresh products is an additional barrier to families trying to provide a nutritious meal. 

A nutritious hot meal in a school setting provides an instant magic wand in removing these barriers.  Children see other children trying new foods, staff actively encourage conversations about the food being eaten, praising children having a go.  Healthy eating quickly becomes the norm.  These habits are life changing in many cases. 

Almost all of our children from Reception to Year 2 take up the universal offer. Families talk to our staff about the benefits of a nutritious hot meal during the day taking pressure off them to feed them with one at night.  However, they also explain that the cost is such a barrier. 


Supporting our relationships with parents

Once our children hit year three, the take up of a school meal drops off.  Those that can afford continue, those that are on free school meals remain.

In our schools about a third of children then go onto packed lunches, then this becomes the norm for the rest of their Key Stage 2 journey. 

Pressures for parents then become about the brand of lunchbox, not its contents or the food, and families fall into that trap of giving their child what they think they will eat, or what their child says they will eat, just to ensure that they have something at lunchtime.

I believe that extending free and healthy school meals means that families who do not take up that offer currently, would quickly return to a hot school meal. 

On themed days, once a half term, almost all of our pupils engage in the menu.  Families rate the service, they just can’t afford it every day.  Some of them say that it is a treat.  Our families currently pay £2.30 a day, so if you have more than one child the cost quickly rockets and then families have large bills to clear. 

Our families know that they should pay up front for services, but Mrs Smith never refuses a child a meal - and they know that!  Then the relationship with families deteriorates and we are then chasing them for payment. 

Relationships are harder to form when there is a barrier such as that.


Ending uncertainty for schools and families

I heard recently that our local authority, who have provided a food voucher worth £15 per child per week for each family entitled to free school meals over every holiday since COVID can offer it only once more for February half term. There is sadly uncertainty over the longer-term future of the Household Support Fund, and if this will continue into the next financial year*.

This constant uncertainty and lack of clarity on when the next initiative is coming is exhausting and I question how long schools like ours can do the job we do. 

Staff in school are tired of finding more and more creative options to solve more and more complex situations for families. 

We do it because we know it works and because we have a belief that it is not our children’s fault.  We do it because it is the right thing to do.

We have an opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of many, to carry on the great work that Marcus Rashford and others helped to begin.

So let’s level up that playing field, or should I say school dining hall table, for all. 


Add your support for Good School Food For all! 


* At the Spring Budget on 6 March, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a further £500 million to cover six months of funding for the Household Support Fund, therefore uncertainty still remains over school holiday support for the next academic year 2024/25.

This blog is based on the speech given by Sarah Smith at the launch of Health of the Next Generation: Good Food for Children, a joint report from the following public health organisations: Faculty of Public Health, Royal Society of Medicine, Association of Directors of Public Health, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, School and Public Health Nurses Association, British Association for Child and Adolescent Public Health, Royal Society for Public Health.  

Published Monday 4 March 2024

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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Sarah Smith is an Executive Headteacher of Christ the King Catholic Academy and St Cuthbert’s Catholic Academy and Nursery in Blackpool in the North West of England. She has been teaching since 1998 and loves working with school communities to help the children secure great educational outcomes, and to remove any barriers that children and families face.

Sarah Smith

Barbara joined Sustain in 2018 and manages the Children’s Food Campaign, which champions children’s rights, parent power and government action to improve the food environment children grow up in. This includes campaigning for tighter regulations of junk food marketing to children, better school food and reducing children’s consumption of sugary or unhealthy food.

Barbara Crowther
Campaign Manager Children's Food Campaign

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