IT WAS NO quiet lunch for two on Thursday as Mayor Lutfur Rahman and Deputy Mayor Cllr Maium Talukdar went to Swanlea School to celebrate the launch of free school meals for secondary school pupils.
“Thrilled to launch free school meals for secondary students at @swanlea_school today,” Mayor Rahman explained. “It was amazing to see pupils enjoying the benefits of a healthy, hot meal without worrying about money in their pocket. I know this will transform the lives of many youngsters and their families.”
Mayor Lutfur introduced free schools meals for primary pupils back in 2014. Now his Administration has extended the provision to include all secondary school students up to the age of 16. This means that over 38,000 school students in Tower Hamlets are provided with a good lunch every day during term time.
It’s a double boost for Tower Hamlets residents.
●As a parent living through the cost of living crisis, you can cut back on what you spend on supermarket shopping, but there’s nothing you can do to reduce the cost of school meals. That’s why Mayor Rahman has stepped in and removed the headache of the fixed cost of a school dinner. His new policy will save families with children in the first five years of secondary school around £550 per year: money which will help those families make ends meet.
●As a school professional, you know that you can’t teach a hungry child. Teachers and school staff across the borough should find it easier to teach children who come into afternoon lessons refuelled and ready to learn.
Additional benefits should include an increase in attainment, as teenagers can pay more attention to learning during afternoon lessons and less time dreaming of the after-school visit to the chicken shop, where they can often find food which is cheaper than a school dinner.
That cheap food won’t be as healthy as a school dinner. Half of the 11 year olds who start secondary school in Tower Hamlets are classed as overweight. Public health chiefs have been trying to reduce the numbers of secondary pupils who remain overweight: free school meals should be a tremendous boost to that campaign.
The extension of free school meals follows a number of anti-poverty measures taken by Mayor Lutfur Rahman during his first year back in office. Previous measures have been targetted on the poorest families in the borough, and in particular at young people in education with, for eample, the return of the Eduction Maintenance Allowance and university bursaries.
After so much carefully targetted help, why has the Mayor now introduced a universal system of free school meals? There’s an easy answer. Tower Hamlets is once more at the top of the child poverty tables, and nearly half the borough’s children live below the poverty line.
Problems like this need a proportionate response – with money being spent on the children, not on endless bureaucracy to brand children as “poor enough” and “not quite poor enough”.
Free school meals are now being served in some secondary schools in the borough. The Council is paying for other schools to upgrade their kitchen and dining facilities so they can also offer free meals for all. These schools will join the scheme as soon as they can, with all schools expected to be on board by January 2024 at the latest.
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