Page last updated at 16:22 GMT, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

More children to get free meals says pre-Budget report

By Gary Eason
Education correspondent, BBC News

School meals
Free school meals are going to be available to more pupils

Another half a million primary school children in England will get free school lunches, Alistair Darling said in his pre-Budget report.

The chancellor promised spending on schools in the UK would continue to increase above inflation after 2010-11.

There is to be financial support for 10,000 undergraduates to experience internships in the professions.

But university, science and research budgets are expected to save £600m, with another £300m from adult training.

The government is to provide extra help for the young unemployed.

Mr Darling headlined his report as aiming to build a fairer society and secure opportunity for all.

He listed schools - though not education overall - as one of the essential services that had to be protected.

Research and skills cuts

To that end, spending on "front line" schools in England will rise by 0.7% a year in real terms in 2011-12 and 2012-13, with consequential increases for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Spending on participation for 16 to 19 year olds rises in real terms by 0.9% a year.

But universities feature in the other side of the balance sheet, aimed at reducing the public sector debt.

The report says £600m will be saved from higher education and science and research budgets from a combination of changes to student support, "efficiency savings and prioritisation".

The director general of the Russell Group of universities, Wendy Piatt, said: "We will have to wait to see how these savings will be implemented but it is vital that the government does not undermine the UK's world-class research base and world-class universities.

"Now more than ever, the UK's leading research-intensive universities have a key role to play in helping us to emerge from recession quickly."

Sustaining their success would be incredibly difficult with these potentially severe cuts in higher education and research.

Another £350m of savings are to be found from the Department for Children, Schools and Families central budgets.

More cuts are to made - totalling £300m - from training and skills budgets.

This is "to focus spending on those people that need it most and on the skills most vital to Britain's future".

Free meals

Free school meals entitlement would be extended to more primary school children with lower-income working parents who would not previously have been eligible, Mr Darling said.

This will affect families with a household income below £16,190 and will be staged, half in September next year and the rest a year later - ultimately benefiting about 500,000 children at a cost of £140m a year.

In addition, the government will extend the current pilots of universal free school meals for primary school children from just two areas, so that there is a pilot in each English region.

In the 2009 school census in England, 656,500 children in nursery and primary education qualified for free meals and 439,000 in secondary schools.

In Scotland, all children in the first three years of primary school are to be entitled to free meals from August 2010, following pilots in five areas.

Training places

To encourage fairer access to the professions, the government will offer £8m of financial support for up to 10,000 undergraduates from low-income backgrounds to take up short-term internships.

The details of the scheme are yet to be worked out but the report says it is intended that the government funding "will be used to leverage in other contributions".

Mr Darling said the existing guarantee of a place in education or training for every 16 and 17-year-old would be available again in September 2010.

He brought forward his plan to help the young unemployed: from next month no-one under the age of 24 need be out of work for more than six months before being guaranteed work or training - rather than the current 12 months.

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, John Dunford, said he welcomed the priority being given to schools and 16-19 education - in the present climate the increases were good news and considerably better than feared.

"It remains to be seen whether the 'efficiency savings' can be incorporated into schools' own priorities or whether they will come to be seen as cuts."

But the demands on budgets were constantly increasing and in a tighter financial situation the government must be wary of placing yet more demands on schools and colleges.

And the 1% cap on public sector pay after 2011 might put at risk the progress made in recent years in improving teacher recruitment.

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