Questions about milk

Written by: Amy Cook | Published:
Photo: iStock

What are the rules on providing milk to pupils? Amy Cook answers some of the most commonly questions from school leaders

It has been a big year for school food in England. Following recommendations in the School Food Plan, every child in an infant class is now entitled to a free school lunch and cooking lessons are an entitlement within the national curriculum from key stages 1 to 3. And then five months ago, champions of healthy eating in schools welcomed new School Food Standards, designed to make it "easier for school cooks to create imaginative, flexible and nutritious menus".

The standards set stringent rules on how school food is prepared and what goes into it, so researchers at The Key weren't surprised when school leaders started asking us questions about the nitty-gritty aspects.

"What can we sell in our tuck shop?" came up in early January (nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables are fine but cereal bars, sweets, and chocolate are off-limits), quickly followed by: "Do our catering staff need training on the new standards?"

Amid the rush of food-related questions, what really struck us was the flood of questions on the need to make milk available every school day. As we have since found out, though, making milk available doesn't necessarily mean offering it for free, and a chocolate milkshake won't meet the requirements. Given that 1,200 of our school leader members have sought our help with understanding this requirement so far this year, now seems like a good time to share answers to the most frequently asked questions.

What's the actual requirement?

Lower fat or lactose-reduced milk must be available at least once during each school day to all pupils who want it. In the case of the lower fat variety, the fat content mustn't exceed 1.8 per cent, so semi-skimmed or skimmed milk is your safest bet. There is no requirement to provide alternatives like soya milk, but if any of your pupils are lactose intolerant you might look into stocking up. You are allowed to give whole milk to pupils up to the end of the school year in which they reach five-years-old.

Does it apply to me?

The chances are it does. All maintained primary, secondary, nursery and special schools are bound by the School Food Standards, as are pupil referral units and non-maintained special schools. If you are in an academy established before 2010, or you signed your funding agreement from June 2014 onwards, then you are also affected. All other academies are expected to use these standards as a guide.

Why the requirement to offer milk?

Childhood obesity is a real concern in England at the moment. One in five children aged between four and five is categorised as overweight or obese, and a third of five-year-olds were suffering from tooth decay in 2012.

According to Dr Patricia Mucavele, head of nutrition at the Children's Food Trust, soft drinks, confectionary and fruit juices are at the root of the problem for younger children. Soft drinks are also the largest single source of sugar for those of secondary school age. Swapping sugary drinks for lower fat milk, she says, is one of the easiest ways to have a positive impact on children's health. When looked at in this light, re-introducing milk into the school day seems sensible.

What's the recommended serving size?

The recommended portion for primary-age pupils is 150 to 200 millilitres. The portion size increases at secondary school to a recommended 200 to 250 millilitres per-pupil, per-day.

Which pupils receive milk for free?

Any pupil who is eligible for benefits-based free school meals must get milk for free. Milk provided at lunchtime must be free for infants (as part of the universal infant free school meals entitlement), but you may charge for milk you provide to infants at any other time of the day.

Do we get any extra funding for this?

No. Where pupils are entitled to milk for free, schools have to cover the cost from their main block of funding, as they do when providing free school meals. There is an EU School Milk Subsidy Scheme though, which you can use to help cover the cost of certain milk and yoghurt products so that you can sell them to pupils at a lower price. This allows you to claim on a maximum of 250 millilitres of milk per-child, per-day.

There is also the Nursery Milk scheme, offered by the Department of Health, which provides free milk to under-fives at eligible day care settings.

If claiming feels a bit laborious, you could always sign up to a scheme with a milk supplier. Companies such as Cool Milk, DairyLink UK and FP School Milk UK offer to do the work for you, and manage contributions from parents, milk delivery and subsidy claims on your behalf. 

  • Amy Cook is a senior researcher at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to school leaders and governors. She is also editor of The Key's blog, Key insights.

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