AN education chief in South Tyneside has given an enthusiastic welcome to an announcement that all five-to-seven year-old pupils will receive free school meals from September next year.
The £600m plan is designed to boost the health and educational attainment of children, and will save families an average of £437 per child per year at a time when many are struggling with the cost of living.
The plan was announced in Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s speech at his party’s conference in Glasgow.
The move has particular relevance in South Tyneside where 25.83 per cent of primary pupils are eligible for free meals – compared to a national average of 15.9 per cent.
In the financial year 2012/13, the number of free meals served in our primary schools was 483,443.
Coun Joan Atkinson, the council’s lead member for children, young people and families, described the announcement as “wonderful news”, particularly for those families “struggling in these tough economic times”.
She said: “We pride ourselves on our school meals service, which already has one of the highest take-up rates in the country.
“We believe a tasty, nutritious school meal is the best choice for parents in helping to give their children the best possible start in life.
“Making sure children get a healthy school meal every day has a significant impact on a child’s concentration levels, mood, behaviour and learning.
“Eating well at a young age also helps to instil healthy attitudes to food in our children so they can grow up with less risk of a timebomb of health problems in the future.
“We are well placed to respond to this new policy and await further information from the Government about how it will be implemented.”
Coun Atkinson added: “Our consistently high meal uptake in South Tyneside is attributable to our skilled and professional school cooks and our school leaders who are committed to providing excellent meals in South Tyneside.”
Borough schools currently receive cash annually from the Government which covers the cost of free school meals and most schools choose to purchase the meals through the council’s catering service with their funding allocation.
The total uptake in free meals at borough primary schools in the last year was 69 per cent – compared to a national average of 46 per cent.
A child is eligible for a free meal if their family is on Income Support, Jobseekers Allowance and other benefits.
A council spokesman said the authority was awaiting details from the Government on how the new free meals funding would be administered.
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