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Tower Hamlets: first to offer free school meals to students up to 16

The scheme supports families during the cost-of-living crisis, providing a saving of £550 per year, per child. 

Posted on: 28 September 2023

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets (LBTH) has become the first local authority in England to roll out universal free school meals to all primary and secondary pupils up to the age of 16.  

While the Mayor of London is rolling out free school meals for all primary school children in London for one year, LBTH is going further by rolling out free school meals for all primary and secondary school pupils.   

The council has funded free school meals for all primary school children since 2014.  

The secondary school scheme is being rolled out in phases from September 2023, with all schools set to launch by January 2024. 

The scheme for secondary schools is being rolled out now in phases based on schools’ readiness, to allow them to prepare for delivery based on their individual circumstances.  

The council has provided £722k of upfront investment to schools for all new equipment to be purchased and installed.   

By January 2024, nearly 38,000 pupils in Tower Hamlets’ primary and secondary schools will have access to a free school meal – regardless of their family’s income.   

Tower Hamlets is the youngest borough in the country and the funding is part of the council’s effort to improve the life chances of young people.  

With 47.5% of children in Tower Hamlets living below the poverty line - the highest rate in the UK - the scheme is providing vital support during the cost-of-living crisis, saving families an average of £550 per year, per child.  

Eating a healthy, nutritious meal supports pupils with their learning and has been shown to improve behaviour and academic achievements.   

With nearly half of children in Tower Hamlets going into secondary school with excess weight, the scheme is a positive step towards improving the physical health of young people and promoting a healthier borough.  

£5.7 million was included in the council’s 2023/24 budget to extend universal free school meals funding from all primary to all secondary school pupils.   

The funding forms part of the council’s wider investment in young people which includes:  

£13.7m investment to transform youth services  

£1.1m to re-introduce Education Maintenance Allowances and University Bursaries  

£1.1m for children with special educational and additional needs (SEND) 

Lutfur Rahman, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “With the highest poverty rate in the country the scheme provides vital financial support for families in Tower Hamlets, as well as numerous health and academic benefits. I would like to thank our secondary schools who have been working extremely hard to support the launch of this ground-breaking scheme.” 

Cllr Maium Talukdar, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Education, Youth and Lifelong Learning, added: “This is a special moment for Tower Hamlets as we become the first in the country to roll out universal free school meals in secondary schools. A universal free school meals offer mitigates the impacts of household food insecurity and supports those who are struggling financially but slipping through the net.  I look forward to evaluating the project over the coming months and seeing pupils benefit from receiving their free school meals.”