THE key role played by North-East schools in persuading the Government to introduce free school meals for all four to seven-year-olds has been underlined by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

As free school meals were extended to a total of 1.89 million children in the first three years of school, the Liberal Democrat leader confirmed that Government policy had been influenced by the success of pilots in County Durham and Newham, in London.

Between 2009 and 2011 County Durham was part of a national free school meals pilot which showed that many children who benefited from a daily, hot, healthy school lunch made more academic progress than those not taking part. They were also more likely to eat healthy vegetables rather than crisps.

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Mr Clegg said: “All the evidence, including the pilots in Durham and Newham, shows that free school meals will not only help ease the pressure on household budgets and encourage positive eating, but will also help improve concentration and raise educational performance so that, regardless of their background, every child can have the best possible start in life.”

The decision to roll out free school meals nationally meant that youngsters at 214 infant and primary schools run by Durham County Council are once again serving free meals to large numbers of children.

Across the North-East as a whole around 70,000 three to four-year-olds will be newly entitled to free school meals, along with 150,000 in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Alison Young, health and wellbeing operational lead at Durham County Council, said: “We are excited that once again we can deliver free school meals to some of our youngest school children. The success of the pilot showed that children achieved up to two months more academic progress than those who didn’t receive free school meals.”

The Government gave Durham County Council £1.1m to improve kitchen and dining facilities. Some schools have contributed a total of £157,000 of their own finances to further upgrade their facilities.

Nationally, the Government provided more than £1bn to meet the cost of the meals over the next two years and has made £150m available to schools to help them build new kitchens.

The Children’s Society has calculated that of the estimated 68,502 gaining entitlement to free school meals in the North-East around 2,472 are living in poverty.

While it welcomes the change the charity points out that many low-income families are unable to get free school meals because their parents are working.