THE start of a new term and nearly two million schoolchildren are now tucking into free school meals.

Under the Liberal Democrat policy, every five to seven-year-old can now eat a free school meal, easing the financial strain on families with a saving of up to £400 per year.

Of course, critics have argued the money should be used in the classroom instead and council leaders have claimed that local authorities and schools are being forced to raid existing budgets to ensure that the plan goes ahead.

Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has insisted that providing lunch for every five to seven year old in England’s 16,500 primary schools will be more beneficial than some attempts to boost academic achievements.

Kevin Holland, headteacher at Green Park Primary in Bradford - which has a heritage deep-rooted in bringing school meals to Bradford after Margaret McMillan and MP Fred Jowett lobbied Parliament to introduce the service in 1907 - says of the 270 youngsters entitled to free school meals at their school only ten or 15 had packed lunches indicative of the positive uptake of the scheme.

“I think it is a really good idea because it is another skill that children need to have. I think the midday meal is very important and we have changed our timetable to give longer in the dining hall which we started back on Monday and it already seems to be having a positive benefit of taking away the rush of having a school meal,” explains Mr Holland.

He also argues that interacting, as youngsters so when they sit down and eat together, is as imperative to a child’s development as the subjects they are taught.

“It is an important part of a child’s education,” adds Mr Holland. “It is not just about maths and English all the time. It should be about social interaction which is the most important part of developing a young person for the future.”

Cllr Ralph Berry, executive member for children and young people services on Bradford Council, says due to the rush in introducing the scheme they have encountered a few snags with pressure on contractors for kitchen equipment and work being completed. Some schools are still on packed lunches due to the delays.

“It is going to take three or four weeks before everybody is fully up and running,” says Cllr Berry.

“But because of the level of commitment that Bradford schools have, and because we know we have got some nutritional problems we have worked hard to make this work.”

He says he ‘pragmatically welcomes’ the scheme due to the nutritional deprivation which exists in parts of the city. Cllr Berry cites a community centre which has been helping to feed youngsters over the summer holidays helping to ease the financial strain some families in the city are facing.

“We know for some families during the summer holidays they were struggling to feed their children and this is just the reality, so free school meals up to 8 is a good start but I would like to see it for the whole of primary,” adds Cllr Berry.

According to figures from the Children’s Society an estimated 18,681 youngsters in reception, Years 1 and 2 in Bradford and 12,953 in Kirklees are gaining entitlement to free school meals. Of those Bradford youngsters, 892 are estimated to be living in poverty.

Nationally, the landmark move will make free school meals available to about 1.5 million more children than before - including 160,000 more children living in poverty.

However, while the move is a significant step forward, half a million children who are living in poverty will continue to miss out on a free school meal.

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, says: “The extension of free school meals to all infants in Yorkshire and the Humber is a positive step in the fight against child poverty, and shows that the Government recognises the hardship that thousands of families are facing.

“But for poor youngsters older than seven nothing has changed. That’s why it is vital that ministers build on this to make sure that every child in poverty is guaranteed a free school meal, whatever their age.”

Trish Gavins, principal of Whetley Academy, Whetley Lane, Bradford, says: “We have a big kitchen so we have not had any practical problems. It isn’t 100 per cent uptake but I am with the Government – I think it is fairer for families because there is a feeling that people who are getting benefits always get extra and this is for everybody. I like that idea that working people who are not entitled to free school meals still get that meal. It is the equality aspect.”