Headteacher Richard Brown grew up on free school meals. He remembers the stigma of having to queue separately. Now he runs a school where everybody gets a free lunch, regardless of their ability to pay.
The Urswick school in Hackney is officially the most disadvantaged school in London. About 65% of pupils are eligible for free school meals (FSM), but for the past eight years the school has provided all pupils with a free lunch, including those in sixth form.
It started after a successful Ofsted inspection when the school celebrated with free burgers for all. “It was a lovely event,” said Brown. “I saw kids coming in for lunch who had never been in lunch before. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t about the burgers, it was the fact that the food was free that day to everybody.
“For the vast majority of them, they weren’t coming in for lunch because they couldn’t afford it, not because they didn’t like the food. So I went to the governors and proposed that we made a universal offer to give every child a free school lunch.”
The governors agreed, the policy was rolled out, and it has been in place ever since. On the menu on the day the Guardian visited was chicken curry with rice and peas, or Quorn stew with rice. There were four choices of sandwiches – sausage, chicken and mayonnaise, tuna and cheese. Pudding was blueberry yoghurt, with juice and bottled water to drink. All for free.
“We think the benefit is massive,” said Brown. “I think kids are more likely to attend in the knowledge they get a free meal every day. We definitely have a high take-up on after-school revision clubs and classes, because kids have been fed at lunchtime. They’re not going home or going to the chicken shop.
“I can’t quantify the impact of it on exam results, but we can measure by soft indicators. We are a thriving, happy community, with good relations between people. If we are always talking to kids about equality, we can put equality at the centre of the school by giving every child a free school meal regardless. That’s why the ethos of this school is so strong. I think it contributes massively to our sense of happiness as a school.”
For Brown, the cost of providing a free meal for all pupils at his east London school is less than it would be in many other schools, because so many of his students are already eligible and the school is provided with funding for them.
He pays for the additional meals, costing the school £80,000 to £100,000 a year, through lettings – renting out the car park and sports facilities – which is not something that would be available to all schools. But he says economies of scale and certainty about demand means it’s not as expensive as it might otherwise be.
“Lettings income has covered the cost, but there are other ways of generating money. If I thought we needed to, I would seek support from charitable organisations. It’s important to us. I’m sure there are things that other schools could do to avoid hungry children, which strikes me as the first moral imperative, alongside keeping them safe.”
Food poverty has seen teachers at the Ark Elvin academy in Brent go further, offering evening meals to students and their families in partnership with a local food bank.
Rebecca Curtis, Ark Elvin’s principal, said: “At the beginning of the term, I was struck by the level of need in the community and we were fearful about how much things could get worse in the winter months. We started thinking about how we could use the school’s space, not just to provide a hot meal and a warm place but also to break down the isolation that many people in our community have experienced since the Covid pandemic.”
With more than one in three of the academy’s pupils eligible for free school meals, Curtis said that even one night a week could make a significant difference to struggling families, and she approached the Sufra food bank and kitchen in north-west London.
The school provides the facilities and staff for the weekly meals, while Sufra organises the food and cooking, with funding coming from the Raheem Sterling Foundation, the charity founded by the Chelsea and England footballer who is a former pupil and grew up on a nearby council estate.
The community evenings launched at the start of this month. Fahim Dahya, Sufra’s logistics and facilities manager, said the first evening was a success, with nearly 100 people coming along despite the event only being advertised to families at Ark Elvin and two local primary schools.
“We were expecting small numbers but it was packed. It shows it was the right thing to do, that there is a need, that people want it and will come,” Dayha said.
Curtis said the evening meals could become a community event, not just for families connected to the school but those in need, including the many refugees housed in hotels nearby. And she hoped to expand the evenings to include homework clubs, tutoring and other support for families.
“What the pandemic showed is that if schools are properly funded, we can do so much more. We are trusted by our families because they see us every day,” Curtis said.
Dahya said Ark Elvin’s experience could be a model for other schools around the country. “I want this to be a blueprint not just for Brent but the wider national community. If we can achieve this in one school, imagine what we can do in more schools, if schools can open their doors one night a week.”