Policy Papers

The provision of school meals since 1906: progress or a recipe for disaster?

Alan Finch |

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Executive Summary

  • After elementary education became compulsory from the 1870s hundreds of thousands of poor schoolchildren regularly went to school underfed and unable to benefit from education. In 1906 legislation allowed rate-payer-funded feeding programmes to alleviate the worst distress but only in areas where local authorities chose to adopt the legislation. Many did not.           
  • 1940s legislation compelled all local authorities to provide free nutritious meals for all schoolchildren. However, this was soon deemed too costly and subsequent governments have increasingly sought to curtail spending on peripheral aspects of education such as transport, meals and playing fields.
  • Privatisation of the school meals service has led to accusations of diminished nutritional standards while passing the cost of the meals onto parents has led to a reduction in the number of meals served – sometimes substituted by local ‘fast food’ outlets. Health experts worry that the availability of ‘junk food’ and the uncontrolled advertising of unhealthy foodstuffs to children are fuelling the current obesity crisis     
  • Failure to regulate food manufacturers and force changes in levels and types of harmful ingredients and failure to regulate marketing practices means there is little incentive for the industry to remove or reduce harmful products or limit advertising of ‘junk food’ to children. Unless government grasps the nettle of food industry regulation, levels of childhood obesity will not reduce any time soon.
  • History suggests that setting ‘gold’ standards in nutritional values for food supplied in schools, alongside educational programmes aimed towards healthy eating, regardless of who provides the food, could be an appropriate policy to incentivise the food industry to raise their game.           


In 1906 the British parliament passed the permissive Education (Provision of Meals) Act allowing Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to provide free meals to elementary schoolchildren, funded out of the local rates. Rate-payer funded feeding programmes enabled under-nourished schoolchildren to benefit from the nation’s compulsory elementary education. 358,306 elementary schoolchildren were provided with free meals in 1912/13, about 7% of the elementary school population aged 3-11.

The 1944 Education Act required all LEAs to provide a midday meal and set nutritional guidelines to follow. Efforts to provide all meals free of charge to the recipient proved too costly and in 1949 the Labour government allowed LEAs to charge 6d. per meal while still providing some meals free to disadvantaged schoolchildren. Throughout the fifties and sixties approximately 50% of schoolchildren, both elementary and secondary, were taking nutritionally-designed midday meals with 5 - 10% getting them free. Exact percentages are difficult to quantify as the Ministry of Education changed their reporting procedures and stopped providing information on those pupils receiving free meals. Over 90% had free daily milk.

Since 1980 successive governments have rowed back from the mid-century attempts to ensure nutritionally-balanced school menus as part of the ‘nanny state’ opting instead for parental control over children’s diets. Promotion of consumer choice has resulted in advertising of ‘junk food’ aimed at children and the availability of fast food outlets close to schools.

The explosion in obesity amongst school-children in the last 30 years is very concerning and does lead to under-performance at school and continuing disadvantage. Without regulation to reduce the more unhealthy aspects of processed or ‘fast’ food, or at least restricting access to unhealthy food during, and shortly after, school hours and the restriction of advertising to schoolchildren, it is difficult to see this situation improving.

The 1906 Provision of Meals Act

Since compulsory elementary education was introduced by the 1870 Forster Act reports that some children were arriving at school badly undernourished and unable to benefit from education were common. Philanthropic measures to alleviate suffering, many instigated by teachers using personal funds, spread throughout the country. In London over 150 organisations were active, some as early as the 1860s, and a further 200 operated elsewhere, mainly in large cities, in England and Wales. The Second Report of the School Board’s Joint Committee on Underfed Children, published in June 1902, estimated a weekly average of 20,085 children (3% of the average attendance in LCC schools in 1902) received meals in London alone. Estimates for the rest of England and Wales remain elusive but philanthropic feeding must have been substantial.

Many commentators considered the disastrous Boer Wars and the, apparent, poor performance of British troops and the high failure rates in recruitment among the lower classes, due to poor physical condition, to be the stimulus for the series of reports from 1903 to 1905 into reasons for the apparent physical ‘deterioration’ in young British men — and hence as a reason for welfare reform measures. Although the statistics, and highly dubious eugenics-based theories for poor military performance, were proven to be wrong, and the assertions of deterioration publically refuted, as Simon Szreter has shown, reports did highlight two remedial measures that caught the public attention. The need for adequate nourishment regimes and the medical inspection of schoolchildren were recommended but without suggesting the contentious use of state funds. However, legislation to allow rate-payer funded school meals for necessitous children in 1906 was followed in 1907 with legislation establishing a school health service obliging LEAs to provide for the medical inspection of schoolchildren at defined periods in their academic life and to instigate means of rectifying identified medical issues. In charting its history the Ministry of Education described these two measures as ‘great educational services’ in the report for the year 1950 (Cmd. 8244), but were these remedial measures stimulated only by military failures or were other forces equally, or more, responsible for these extraordinary social welfare reforms?

To answer this question it is necessary to review attitudes towards poverty in Britain among some in administrative positions within national and local government and the prevailing political climate of the day. Interestingly, Pat Thane, in her recent policy paper on poverty points out that the extent and causes of poverty in Britain are now remarkably similar to those at the beginning of the twentieth century.     

Whereas the portrait of the poor by many in the press, and in parts of the administration, firmly placed responsibility for poverty on personal failings, evidence existed that low wages and irregular employment were the real reasons for poverty and suggested that the lower classes were unable to effect improvements to their circumstances with conditions of employment and housing outside of their control. Social surveys by Charles Booth (East London, 1889 - 1902) and Seebohm Rowntree (York, 1901) highlighted the circumstances in which the poor existed while enquiries into the housing of the working classes identified failings by local authorities in implementing remedial measures, suggesting vested interests overrode improvements to maximise profits for slum owners. Exposure of venality did force improvements to be made, often as public enquiries were sitting, and sympathy with the condition of the poor did exist but governments failed to take expensive remedial action, preferring to abdicate responsibility for the ‘alleviation’ of poverty to the Poor Law and to the policies of philanthropic organisations such as the Charity Organisation Society (C.O.S.). Although the long-established (since 1869) moralistic influence of the C.O.S. was waning, their attitudes towards the poor were still shared by many officials in the relevant departments of central government such as the Local Government Board.

Oral histories covering the period 1900 – 1910 suggest a very different picture of poverty and how the poor lived than those described by some administrators and some in the press. Taking a random selection of respondents born between 1896 and 1906 from the UK Data Archive, and interviewed in the 1960s, it is clear that the majority of those offering an opinion considered their parents to be law abiding, sober, with good parenting skills and reasonable discipline and with a strong desire for their children to be well educated and have better life chances than they had.

Most respondents considered their parents to be positive role models, courteous and polite and having respect for other people within and outside their communities and class. Most poor communities showed good cohesion and had a range of associational and informal support measures in place to deal with individuals in economic difficulties or for the most exigent medical needs. There were pockets of squalor and lawlessness but these were a minority of the poorest populations. However, these support mechanisms could be overwhelmed when mass unemployment in local industries involved whole communities and could lead to eventual recourse to the onerous conditions of the Poor Law.

The overriding political consensus throughout Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901) had been that of liberal laissez-faire principles: that the state should not interfere with the absolute responsibility of the male householder to provide for himself and his family. But by the end of the nineteenth century some commentators and administrators were advocating social reform and the involvement of the state in family life, as Michael Freeden has shown. The powers of local authorities expanded in the nineteenth century with some provincial cities organising social welfare programmes to alleviate distress in economic downturns or municipalisation schemes to benefit their residents. The beginning of the twentieth century saw a number of factors influence a change in political thinking. The series of enquiries regarding the perceived deterioration of British recruits was only one factor. The third extension of the franchise in 1884 meant 60% of males in England and Wales had the right to vote and the 1906 general election was reported to have seen much greater participation from the electorate, with enhanced understanding of the issues, than previous elections. Compared with 1900 the demographics of Liberal party candidates of 1906 differed somewhat in terms of age, employment and land ownership indicating a more diverse set of skills and experiences and fewer traditional political connections. Fearful of the developing organised labour movement and a rising Labour Party, many Liberal candidates and some Unionist candidates advocated the introduction of free school meals for necessitous schoolchildren in their manifestos and public meetings, making it an election issue together with other aspects of social reform, such as old age pensions and land reform.

The Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906    

To neutralise traditionalist opposition, the Act was constructed to be permissive and not obligatory. Opposition to the Bill was confined, mainly, to a small number, 25 to 30, of the more conservative Unionist MPs. Opposition was muted because the funding for any feeding programmes would fall on rate-payers rather than central funds, meaning local administrators could refuse to implement such schemes if they considered implementation unnecessary. At the last moment the House of Lords removed Scotland from the legislation, infuriating campaigning Scottish MPs in a move only corrected some two years later. The introduction of the school medical service, to inspect elementary schoolchildren at three distinct ages or if requested by the teacher, occurred shortly after. It was made obligatory for LEAs to organise such a service in each part of the country. These two measures constituted a significant innovation in state intervention and the influence of Robert Morant, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Education, deserves mention for managing the content and passage of the two Acts. It was Morant five years earlier who had recommended the re-organisation of thousands of fragmented School Boards, run by local religious do-gooders, into the 328 LEAs (as they existed on 1 August 1908), with responsibility to elected local government, in an effort to improve and professionalise the management of both elementary and secondary education. Morant was now proposing to empower those LEAs to provide free school meals and medical inspection to enhance the ability of poor children to receive a decent education. Morant also stressed the need for a better and more widely educated workforce in order to compete with technically advanced countries such as Germany and the US.

Implementation of the Act

Some LEAs implemented the Act immediately while others refused until obliged to so do by further legislation. During the school year 1908-09, school canteen committees were established in 113 LEAs, out of 328, and were supplying free meals and/or milk to necessitous elementary schoolchildren as well as midday meals to paying students as required when parents realised the convenience of the school providing such a service.

Under the legislation the Board of Education estimated in that year that 116,840 children (approximately 4% of elementary schoolchildren educated in LEA-controlled schools providing meals) received 7,198,297 meals, and almost all without payment. Crippling fatigue and malnutrition had meant that many of these children would have been unable to benefit from formal education without these meals, and often associated with additional meals supplied by ‘breakfast clubs’. Areas that did not implement the Act continued to rely on philanthropy to alleviate the worst of the suffering or simply ignored it, despite philanthropy generally being considered inadequate. Medical inspection allowed early diagnosis for remedial or correctable outcomes to malnourished or sick elementary schoolchildren for those LEAs who rapidly introduced inspection and means of treatment. 266 LEAs had made arrangements to provide medical care by 1914, using voluntary hospitals, care organisations and private practitioners, sometimes paying for care or appliances when poverty disadvantaged schoolchildren. Free, or subsidised, spectacles and dental care became common. Unfortunately not all authorities or School Medical Officers of Health (SMOs) implemented the legislation using common standards and variations in the diagnosis of malnourishment meant a uniform system of inspection took several decades to eradicate local errors.

Shortly before the first world war numbers of schoolchildren receiving free food rose to nearly 160,000 (approximately 3% of those schoolchildren aged 5-11 in England and Wales) consuming 14,525,593 meals and during the first year of the war this further increased to 500,000 children (approximately 10% as above) and 30,000,000 meals. Although the legislation allowed parents to purchase midday meals for their children when provision at home proved inconvenient, during this period, very few chose this option. In the latter stages of the war the number of free meals fell dramatically with less than 70,000 (approximately 1% as above) elementary schoolchildren receiving them; although the reasons for this are not entirely clear. However, the depression of 1921-22 saw a dramatic increase in free meals to nearly 600,000 (approximately 12% as above) elementary school-children which was only curtailed by limiting, artificially, local authorities’ expenditure on the provision of food.

Further periods of economic depression or industrial unrest tended to see the need for free meals increase with the Board of Education continuing to promote the idea that such measures be considered as educational and not simply as social welfare. In 1934-35 225 LEAs were providing meals to 406,381 elementary school-children (approximately 8% as above); almost all free of charge. The majority of authorities providing free meals were Boroughs and Urban Districts or County Boroughs which provided the bulk (70%) of those meals. County Councils, catering for more rural communities, appeared reluctant to implement feeding programmes despite signs of malnourishment in rural schools. Evidence suggests these local authorities, often dominated by traditionally-minded councillors, were less inclined to spend rate-payers’ money on elementary education in comparison to Boroughs, Urban Districts or County Boroughs. Both Lancashire and Essex County Councils had numbers of councillors and co-opted lay members representing religious groups and refused to implement feeding programmes but Bradford County Borough, for example, had only one recognised religious influence, who consistently voted against rate-payer funded feeding programmes, and was regularly ignored. Bradford implemented a comprehensive feeding programme and had an elementary education rate twice as high as either Lancashire or Essex. Measures to ensure that entitlement to free meals was genuine - preventing abuse of the system - were, in general, successful. School medical officers and teachers would recommend those pupils eligible for free meals and after enquiries of the family circumstances usually approved. Cases where parents fraudulently claimed the benefit of free meals, despite having the means to pay, were usually processed through the courts with the NSPCC prosecuting and citing neglect. This protected the relationship between parent, schoolchild and the teacher. 

By the beginning of the Second World War approximately 50% of all LEAs were providing feeding programmes and, according to the Ministry of Education report for 1951, from 1940 onwards the ‘provision of a mid-day meal for all children whose parents wanted them to have it, on payment of approximately the cost of the food, or free of charge in cases of hardship, became national policy’ (Cmd. 8244).

New legislation made the provision of school meals and milk obligatory and, in 1950, despite the charge to parents of 6d. (£0.025) per meal 48% of all elementary school-children (1,684,500 school-children) were taking meals and 92% took milk which, from 1946, was free of charge. Originally the Labour government of 1945-51 wanted all school meals to be free of charge but the Treasury decided this was unrealistic in terms of expenditure, subsidising the service by only charging for the approximate cost of the raw materials and not the surrounding administration. Although subsequent governments regularly increased the cost to parents as raw material prices increased nutritional standards remained high. However, the Labour government 1964-70 introduced the largest single rise in cost to the parents, 1s. to 1s. 6d. and then in the following year, 1968, to 1s. 9d. and in the same year ended free school milk in secondary schools. Charles Webster has argued that ‘the Labour administration in 1968, rather than Thatcher’s more notorious snatching of milk from primary schools, marked the beginning of the downward spiral of the nutritional programme’.

The situation in the later decades of the twentieth century was more complex. By the early 1980s only 50% of secondary school pupils were taking meals either for payment or free of charge. The 1980 Education Bill debates occurred at a time of great economic, industrial and social upheaval and political events were influenced by this environment. Labour and Liberal MPs generally sought to maintain an expensive provision of meals service, approximately 5% of the education budget, while the Conservative government looked to reduce spending in this and other peripheral areas of education while maintaining the statutory obligation of feeding needy schoolchildren free of charge. These divergent views were unlikely to be reconciled.

However, the declining interest in taking discretionary school meals from the 1980s onwards was not only the result of cost or a change of supplier. Personal tastes changed dramatically between the post war austerity years and the consumer-led choices of the latter parts of the twentieth century. Many children simply did not like the choices provided by traditional school canteens governed by nutritionally-defined menus, preferring home-produced lunch box snacks and the sugary soft drinks promoted by the beverages industry.

The new mantra of personal choice subverted older notions that government had a legitimate, but paternalistic, role to promote nutritional standards. The Commons debate of 10 February 1981, which discussed cuts to the education budget, typified both a lack of appreciation of changing social circumstances and the ideological gulf separating Conservative and opposition MPs on freedom of choice and the merits of providing food economically. This is not to suggest either group had a monopoly on effective argument or social conscience because the discussion descended into misrepresentation, inaccuracies and hyperbole that painted an unattractive picture of the British legislature’s ability to conduct informed and reasoned debate in a rapidly changing social climate. 

The 1980 Education Act had already removed the obligation to provide school meals except for pupils whose parents were in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement and the type of meal provided free of charge was considered suitable also for those paying pupils if the LEA extended feeding beyond this statutory minimum. Nutritional standards were devolved to the LEAs who were also instructed to make facilities available for those pupils wishing to bring in their own food. The Conservative government suggested the changes would reduce wastage from meals unattractive to many schoolchildren as well as reducing the overall education budget to focus spending on core educational needs. The seventh report from the Education, Science and Arts Committee, 1982 provided statistical analysis of the school meals service for the years 1977-1981. The analysis showed that the number of pupils receiving free meals over this period remained approximately the same at about 12% but the overall percentage of pupils taking all meals decreased from 61.6% to 49%. No statistics were available showing the percentage of schoolchildren entitled to free meals against those who were actually in receipt. Two county authorities (Lincolnshire and Dorset) had already abandoned school meals in primary schools, only choosing to supply free meals under their statutory duty, and it was suggested that the authorities in Hereford and Worcester would abandon meals in 1982 under the same conditions. In evidence the Department of Education and Science suggested the ‘cash cafeteria’ multi-choice style of dining was more acceptable to pupils and created less waste than traditional school meals. It also made clear that a prime objective of the changes was to reduce the overall cost of the service by 50%, saving approximately £200 million per annum.

The committee made a number of recommendations regarding maintaining nutritional standards, encouraging those entitled to free school meals to take them and protecting the interests of staff transferring from school budgets to independent meals providers. In response the government rejected most recommendations insisting that nutritional standards were now the responsibility of the LEAs, that entitlement to free meals was already widely understood, and that terms and conditions for workers transferring to the private sector were not the responsibility of government. Continuing social change saw less home cooking and more reliance on, or choice from, a widening range of processed convenience foods. Health professionals were already concerned that sugar, salt and fat intakes were increasing rapidly among children due to dietary conversion to the processed foods, marketed by a powerful food lobby, but warnings of unhealthy lifestyles were ignored. The ‘reality’ in a television-watching world of extensive commercial advertising, was that many parents and children increasingly preferred the convenience of pre-prepared food proffered by ‘fast food’ outlets and supermarkets.

The 1997 incoming Labour government spent large amounts of money improving the infrastructure of schools and widening learning programmes but did nothing to improve the nutritional value of meals, accepting the philosophy that individual consumer choice overrode any government policy of promoting ‘healthy’ options of school dinners. According to the government response to the first report of the Education and Employment Committee, 2000, and despite early suggestions to the contrary, not only was a compulsory return to nutrition-based standards rejected, but so was a return to providing a hot meal and ‘any moves to restrict any food or drink from school lunches’ prepared by parents. Banning the advertising of ‘junk food’ on television, specifically aimed at children was also rejected. Many in the Labour Party felt that the powerful food and drink lobby had persuaded the government not to interfere in the rights of the individual or of personal choice. A number of organisations continue to express alarm at rising levels of obesity in young children starting school. A British Nutrition Foundation survey in 2018, found that 60% of secondary schoolchildren bought a take-away meal with chips or fried chicken at least once a week while 48% of primary school-children and 39% of secondary schoolchildren ate three or more snacks a day. While fruit was the most popular snack, almost 50% snacked on crisps or chocolate.

The survey also revealed that many children did not like eating ‘healthily’. A 2018 study by University College London (UCL) compared the weights and heights in groups of children from 1946, 1958, 1970 and 2000. It identified that poor children now outweighed their richer counterparts and blamed changes in diets since WWII and urged the government to introduce policies forcing food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar, salt and fat in processed foods and drinks. Whereas some food manufacturers have proceeded voluntarily to reduce these elements in processed foods, childhood obesity levels continue to rise.

Since 2014, and the current government’s school food plan, which provided a range of steps to increase the take-up of school meals, more secondary school pupils are eating school meals and free meals for disadvantaged children and primary schoolchildren in reception, year one and year two continue. The take-up of free meals for primary schoolchildren in reception, year one and year two classes has increased sharply in austerity Britain from 38% in 2013-14 to 80% in 2015-16, as has the use of food banks and schemes to provide free meals to schoolchildren during school holidays.


It could be argued that social conditions in Britain over the last one hundred years have greatly improved for the majority of families. However, deprivation and inequality continue to exist and some disadvantaged schoolchildren still fail to benefit from education due to hunger and fatigue. Poor diets or unhealthy lunchtime snacks are also known to produce lethargic and less responsive pupils in afternoon teaching sessions. However, the provision of meals undoubtedly benefitted large numbers of disadvantaged schoolchildren and continues to so do. Although exact comparison is impossible, it is likely that a higher percentage of pupils were eligible for free meals, due to the benefits they were claiming, in 2017-18 than a hundred years earlier in 1912-13. In 2017 14.1% of primary schoolchildren and 12.9% of secondary schoolchildren received free meals. In fact this was considerably less than in 2001, leading commentators to suggest that some parents and pupils were not claiming their right to a meal either through ignorance or choice. A reason not to claim would be that eligible pupils were easily identified by their peers and this could lead to discrimination and bullying.                  

Although successive governments have appeared, on the one hand, to promote nutritious school meals, since the late 1960s most have looked primarily to control spending by either devolving responsibility for cost and content to local LEAs and local rate-payers or by focussing central spend on the process of education while de-emphasising so-called ‘peripheral’ activities like school sports fields, transport and catering. The idealistic attempt to provide free meals for all pupils after WWII failed with the realisation in the extremely constrained fiscal situation in 1949 that such an ambition could not be afforded. Since 1980, and under the banner of consumer choice, more and more of the cost has been transferred to parents directly. Complicating the financial aspect of providing meals was the ideological position of successive governments and the return to classic liberal (i.e. pre-1900) attitudes towards interference by the state. Successive governments have described attempts to control school menus, home-prepared lunch boxes, or restrictions of advertising of ‘junk food’ and the availability of fast food outlets close to schools, as illiberal and ‘nannying’, preferring that parents controlled their children’s diets, a set of policies that align perfectly with the profit-making interests of the commercialised food industry.

However, as many interest groups and commentators have pointed out the explosion in obesity amongst schoolchildren in the last 30 years is very concerning and does lead to under-performance at school and continuing disadvantage. Without new regulations to reduce the more unhealthy aspects of processed or ‘fast’ food, or at least restricting access to unhealthy food during, and shortly after, school hours and the restriction of advertising to schoolchildren, it is difficult to see this situation improving.

Further Reading

Freeden, M., The New Liberalism: An Ideology of Social Reform (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978)

Harris, B., The Health of the Schoolchild: A history of the school medical service in England and Wales (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995)

Reports of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, (1904), (Cd. 2175), (Cd. 2186), (Cd. 2210)

Reports of the Inter-Departmental Committee on the Medical Inspection and Feeding of Children Attending Public Elementary Schools, (1905), (Cd. 2779), (Cd. 2784)   

School food in England: Departmental advice for governing boards, July 2016

Szreter, S., Fertility, class and gender in Britain, 1860-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), chapter 4

Lummis, T., Thompson, P., (2009) Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [Data collection]. 7th Edition, UK Data Service. SN: 2000, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Webster, C., ‘Government Policy on school meals and welfare foods 1939-1970’, in Smith, D. F., Nutrition in Britain: science, scientists and politics in the twentieth century (London: Routledge,1997) pp. 190-213

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