Free school dinners are now available to all primary school children in County Durham.

Joe Willis visits a school to find out if the scheme is going down a treat.

THE holidays are over and it’s back to school for pupils at Kirk Merrington Primary School, near Spennymoor.

At the end of the first day, children run across the playground to meet their waiting parents and, after a brief discussion about their lessons, the conversation turns to food.

For many children who previously took packed lunches, this was their first taste of school dinners.

The introduction of free school meals has doubled the number of children having a cooked lunch from 35 to 70 – nearly the entire school roll.

When asked about their cooked lunches, the children were resoundingly positive.

Ten-year-old Niall said his dinner was “gorgeous”.

“They are even nicer than packed lunches” he added.

His mother, Carolyn Bell, is just as delighted.

“It’s brilliant. I have two children here and I reckon I’m going to save £40 a week on shopping for packed lunches,”

she said.

Helen Cockfield also has two children at the school and described the scheme as “excellent”.

Her seven-year-old son, Robert, said he had really enjoyed his meal of mince and Yorkshire pudding, with mash and vegetables. For pudding, he opted for a kiwi fruit, instead of Queen of Hearts tart with custard.

Tracey Stores hopes the scheme will encourage her seven-year-old son, Jack, to eat more “proper food”.

She said: “I am hopeful, but then he was looking forward to sponge and custard this morning.”

Although the first day of free dinners has been an overwhelming success, the launch has not been without its problems.

The school’s old kitchen was unable to cope with the extra numbers of children wanting cooked food, so a new cooker and dishwasher were installed.

This meant a new generator had to be found because the electricity supply was not good enough.

The cooker was only finished at 5.15pm the previous day, with an engineer having to travel from Edinburgh to check it was safe. The plumber was at the school at 8am yesterday morning installing the dishwasher.

More staff have also had to be employed, and about a third of the work has been paid for by the school.

Despite the problems and the cost, headteacher Helen Williams is even more enthusiastic about the scheme than the parents and pupils.

“It’s a marvellous idea and we fully support it,” she said.

“It means children will have a hot meal in the winter, which is very important.”

She also believes school dinners will help children’s social skills. Children choose their meal in advance, so there are no nasty surprises come lunchtime. They then sit together and have jugs of water and bread, from which they can help themselves.

“There’s nothing wrong with packed lunches, but when they’re all sat together as a family, it’s wonderful,” she said.

Mrs Williams praised Durham County Council for its help getting the school ready for the scheme.

She said: “Everybody has worked really, really hard to make sure we were ready.”

Her only concern is that after all the effort, the number of children taking school dinners may not remain high.