Children and Young People Education

The impact of food and drink in schools on pupil outcomes

On Wednesday, Jenny Rathbone AM, Dai Lloyd AM and Joyce Watson AM will lead a ‘Members Debate’ in Plenary regarding the impact that the quality of school meals can have on pupils’ wellbeing, attainment, and positive behaviour. This article aims to provide some relevant background information to assist Assembly Members’ preparations for the debate. It may also be of interest to stakeholders.

Estimated reading time: 6 Minutes

13 May 2019

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

On Wednesday, Jenny Rathbone AM, Dai Lloyd AM and Joyce Watson AM will lead a ‘Members Debate’ in Plenary regarding the impact that the quality of school meals can have on pupils’ wellbeing, attainment, and positive behaviour.

This article aims to provide some relevant background information to assist Assembly Members’ preparations for the debate. It may also be of interest to stakeholders.

Policy and legislative position

The Welsh Government’s recognition of the importance of the intake of healthy and nutritional food to educational outcomes can be seen in its guidance on the Free Breakfast scheme, which states:

research suggests that children who have the opportunity to eat a healthy and nutritious breakfast prior to the start of the school day are more likely to achieve their full educational potential.

Introduced in 2004, the Free Breakfast scheme aims to improve the health and concentration of children and to help raise standards of learning and attainment.

The importance of healthy and nutritional food is also one of the reasons why some pupils are eligible for free school meals (FSM) at lunchtime to ensure they do not otherwise miss out on the health and educational benefits of a nutritional meal due to lack of affordability. This was recognised by the Welsh Government in its 2018 consultation on revising the eligibility criteria for free school meals (PDF 732KB):

[Free school meals] help to ensure that eligible children have access to a nutritional meal, with the aim of improving health and education outcomes.

In its Child Rights Impact Assessment published alongside that consultation (PDF 883KB), the Welsh Government referred to anecdotal evidence (PDF) which it said indicated that ‘healthy school meals can help improve educational attainment by improving classroom behaviour and helping to improve academic performance’.

The Healthy Eating in Schools (Wales) Measure 2009 requires local authorities and school governing bodies to promote healthy eating and drinking by pupils in maintained schools.

Regulations made under the Measure, the Healthy Eating in Schools (Nutritional Standards and Requirements) (Wales) Regulations 2013, impose requirements and standards about all food and drink served to pupils at breakfast, break times, lunchtimes, afternoon break and after-school-clubs across the whole school day in all maintained schools. This applies whether such food/drink is provided by the local authority, in-house by the school or by a contract caterer. The regulations also apply to food and drink served at any outlet on school premises throughout the school day, including the school tuck shop, vending machines, outside serving areas, canteens, and sixth form cafés.

The Welsh Government issued statutory guidance in 2014 to local authorities and governing bodies on how to fulfil those duties.

In March 2018, the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams, answered a Written Assembly Question (WAQ76113) on how the Welsh Government monitors compliance with the 2013 regulations as follows:

It is the responsibility of local authorities and governing bodies of maintained schools to satisfy themselves that they are complying with their duties under the Healthy Eating in Schools Regulations.  However, during inspections Estyn will monitor compliance with the [regulations]. (…)  

In addition the Welsh Local Government Association provides support to schools in ensuring their school meals meet the standards set out in these regulations. This support includes help with producing menus which comply with the food and nutritional standards within the healthy eating in schools regulations, and issuing compliance certificates to schools that provide the required evidence.

The Children’s Commissioner for Wales’ report

The motion being debated in Plenary refers to the report published by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales in March 2019, A Charter for Change: Protecting Welsh Children from the impact of poverty (PDF). This report calls for the Welsh Government to publish a ‘Child Poverty Delivery Plan’ setting out short to medium-term actions which will ‘drive tangible changes to the lives of children and young living in poverty’. Access to food and drink is one of the areas focused on in the report as part of ‘meeting basic needs’.

The Children’s Commissioner says that, in the fieldwork undertaken for her report,  some teachers reported that some children and young people come to school hungry. The Commissioner highlights the problem of food poverty, noting The Food Foundation’s finding (PDF) that 32% of households in Wales need to spend over a quarter of their disposable income after housing costs to meet their food needs, a figure higher than any other UK nation.

The Children’s Commissioner says that in some cases, pupils reported that the free school meal allowance was insufficient to purchase both a meal and a drink and that they were having to choose between them, or between lunch and a snack at break time.

The motion to be debated in Plenary cites A Charter for Change: Protecting Welsh Children from the impact of poverty as providing ‘worrying evidence that a significant number of pupils are not getting their entitlement set out in the healthy eating in maintained schools guidance’.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report indicates that one school had decided to turn off its water fountains, thereby meaning pupils were having to spend £1 on purchasing water, which had a knock-on effect on their capacity to buy food. The Children’s Commissioner said that ‘this is particularly concerning as it contravenes Welsh Government guidance’.

Section 5 of the 2009 Measure requires that local authorities must ensure that a supply of drinking water is available, free of charge, on the premises of any maintained school. The 2014 statutory guidance states that ‘pupils must have easy access at all times to free, fresh drinking water, especially during breakfast sessions and lunchtimes’. It also says schools should promote water availability and signpost water stations throughout the school.

Jenny Rathbone AM raised some of the concerns contained in the Children’s Commissioner’s report, including those relating to provision of water, during the discussion of the Business Statement in Plenary on 5 March 2019 (paras 186-190).

‘Holiday hunger’

The Children’s Commissioner’s report also highlights the issue of ‘holiday hunger’, commenting that:

The school holidays can be a particularly difficult period for families who qualify for free school meals, as a regular meal is lost that they must replace.

In 2017, the Welsh Government piloted its School Holiday Enrichment Programme (SHEP), which is a multi-agency programme aiming to enhance the summer holiday experience for children from the most deprived communities by giving them healthy food and engaging them in outdoor activity and fun. Its rationale is that children in deprived circumstances can experience increased exposure to risk factors including poorer diets and lower levels of physical activity. They can also fall behind their peers educationally during the school summer holiday or lose momentum in their learning which they have built up during the school year.

The Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams, told Assembly Members in Plenary on 30 April 2019:

As we all know, for some of our young people and children, the school summer holidays can be a difficult time. Children who benefit from free school breakfasts and lunches can sometimes miss out on these meals and go hungry during the school holidays. That’s why we are funding the school holiday enrichment programme. This delivers educational, social and health outcomes, as well as nutritional benefits, and we have further increased this investment so even more children will benefit from the scheme this summer.

The Minister said that having been extended over the past few years, SHEP will run in 21 local authorities in summer 2019. She added that the Welsh Government was considering whether the programme could be extended above and beyond schools to other settings to address the financial strain on families in meeting the costs of providing children with meals during the six-week summer holiday period.

Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales

The Welsh Government has recently consulted on its draft strategy to prevent and reduce obesity, Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales.

During the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s scrutiny of the draft strategy, stakeholders did not feel that significant work was necessary but believed more monitoring of the extent to which schools were able to comply with the Healthy Eating in Schools (Nutritional Standards and Requirements) (Wales) Regulations 2013  was needed. The Welsh Government told the Committee that work was underway to consider updating the 2013 Regulations in relation to sugar content guidelines. 

How to follow the debate

The Members Debate is scheduled for Wednesday 15 May 2019 at approximately  4.25pm. The Plenary session will be broadcast on Senedd TV and a transcript will be available on the Assembly’s Record of Proceedings.


Article by Michael Dauncey, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales