Images courtesy of Tower Hamlets Council.
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Tower Hamlets becomes the first local authority in England to roll out universal free school meals to all students

As the Mayor of London launches free school meals for all primary schools, Tower Hamlets Council extends them to all pupils up to the age of 16.

Tower Hamlets Council has begun its rollout of universal free school meals for all primary and secondary school students as pupils across the borough returned to school this week.

On Thursday 7 September, Mayor Rahman sat down among students at Swanlea Senior School to eat one of the 1,200 roast chicken dinners cooked by the school’s in-house catering team on the first day of term. 

The phased rollout of universal free school meals started in schools across the borough this September. By January 2024, nearly 38,000 pupils in Tower Hamlets’ primary and secondary schools will have access to a free school meal regardless of their family’s income.  

In January 2023, Mayor Rahman of Tower Hamlets pledged £5.7 m of the Council’s 2023/24 budget to deliver universal free school meals to primary and secondary students, becoming the first local authority in England to do so.

Of this, £3.7m was allocated for secondary schools and £2m for primary schools. The Council has spent an additional £722k of upfront investment for new kitchen equipment to be purchased and installed.

Funding provided through the Mayor of London’s subsequent scheme launching free school meals for all primary school students across London will offset the £2m allocated to this cause by Tower Hamlets Council. 

According to Mayor Rahman, this money will be reinvested back into schools and other measures to help families tackle the cost-of-living crisis.

‘In a country as wealthy as Britain, no child should be going to bed hungry. It’s a disgrace. and this is part of the solution to that.’

Ms Debra Landers

Tower Hamlets has been funding universal free school meals for primary school students since 2014. Before this year, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Islington and Southwark were the only four London boroughs to do so. 

At the launch of the scheme on Thursday 7 September at Swanlea School in Whitechapel, Mayor Rahman said: ‘We want everyone to have the same life chance, we don’t want money and food to be a barrier to students exploring their fullest potential. 

‘As a youngster, I remember when at times my father couldn’t work I had free school meals, and when he was in work, we’d pay for it, or my mother would give me a packed lunch. But now they are universal which is the key thing.’

Ms Brenda Landers, Headteacher at Swanlea, said: ‘Fifty per cent of our students used to get free school meals anyway, but this is about the next layer of pupils who we call the working poor, and they are the group that are traditionally not eligible for free school meals that massively struggle to provide their child with a meal.

‘Whenever things are means tested, they will get hit, because there is always a cut-off point. But this is about everyone, which makes it way easier for the school to manage and way easier for the kids too.’

Tower Hamlets has the youngest population of any UK borough and the highest child poverty rate, with 47.5 per cent of children in Tower Hamlets living below the poverty line. 

The scheme will provide vital support during the cost-of-living crisis, saving families an average of £550 per year, per child. 

The launch event came on the same day as the publication of a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), revealing that seven out of 10 schools in England were giving out food parcels, food bank provisions, vouchers or subsidised breakfasts. 

Landers said: ‘Will having a good meal make students learn better? Yes. Will I ever be able to link it to better GCSEs and A-Levels? Almost certainly not. The children will eat good food and have a hot meal, and that’s enough.

‘In a country as wealthy as Britain, no child should be going to bed hungry. It’s a disgrace. and this is part of the solution to that.’

Mayor Rahman eats school lunch with pupils and teachers at Swanlea School.
Image courtesy of Tower Hamlets Council.

If you enjoyed this piece, read our interview with Mayor Rahman, the man behind London’s most ambitious anti-austerity budget.

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