School dinners

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Early 20th Century 1901-1918

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Why were school dinners brought in?

Around the year 1900 there was a lot of concern about the physical state of the people of Britain. Even though there had been tremendous efforts in the late 19th century to provide better public health, housing and education, many children were still no more healthy than they had been back in the 1840s.

The new Liberal government elected in 1906 passed various measures to try to deal with this problem. They were particularly concerned to try to improve the health of children. They passed laws to ensure midwives were notified of each new-born baby, they introduced School Medical Examinations and, in 1906, they gave permission for schools to offer meals to their pupils. But what kind of meals?

These documents show how one city, Bradford, carried out an experiment to see how the system might operate.


History Hook – Starter Activity

1. Read Source 1. This is an extract taken from City of Bradford Education Committee Report by the Medical Superintendent, Ralph H Crowley MD, MRCP in conjunction with the Superintendent of Domestic Subjects, Marian E Cuff, on a Course of Meals given to Necessitous Children from April to July, 1907.

  • Make a summary of what the experiment involved. How many children? For how long? Which meals? (And so on.)
  • How were the children chosen? Why do you think they chose these children?
  • Look at paragraph 3. ‘Every effort was made to make the meals, as far as possible, educational.’ What does ‘educational’ mean here? What was being taught? How did the children react?
  • Why were the tablecloths dirty afterwards?

2. Read Source 2. This is another extract from the same report about what food was provided.

The breakfasts

  • How did the children react to being offered porridge for breakfast – at first? After three days?
  • How would you react to being offered porridge for breakfast?

The dinners

  • What problem was Miss Cuff trying to solve with her dinner menus?
  • What criticism might be made of some of the recipes?
  • How does the Report meet that criticism?
  • What seems to be the attitude of Bradford Education Committee towards poor parents? Do you think this is fair?

3. Read Source 3. This is a graph from the report showing how the weights of the children involved were affected.

  • What effect did providing meals have on the weight of the children?
  • What happened to their weights during the holidays?
  • Why does the dotted line go up?

4. Look at Source 4. These are children queuing for Salvation Army ‘Farthing breakfasts’.

A farthing was a quarter of an old penny; there were 12 old pennies in a shilling. A shilling = 5p; an old penny = less than half of 1p; a farthing = one tenth of 1p.

  • What does the photograph tell you about the kinds of children who took these breakfasts?
  • One farthing was very little, even then. Why do you think the Salvation Army charged anything at all?
  • Why did the government bring in school meals, rather than leaving it to charitable organisations like the Salvation Army?

5. Conclusions

  • Miss Cuff has to give a short report to Bradford Education Committee about her ‘experiment’. Note down the five key points you think she should make
  • Apart from the children putting on weight, what was the ‘experiment’ intended to teach – the children? Their parents?

6. For discussion

From 1907, when they began, school meals had to meet certain nutritional standards. These were abolished in 1981: kitchens could serve up what they liked provided it made money; children could buy what they liked. Recently, the government has become worried about child health issues such as malnutrition, but also obesity. Nutritional rules have been re-imposed.

  • Is it the government’s job to tell children what they should eat?
  • What do you think school meals should be like?

Recently some schools have begun to offer breakfasts as well as dinners.

  • Why have they done this?
  • Do you think this is a good idea?


In 1900 there was a great deal of anxiety about the health of the people of Britain.

The government and the armed forces had been shocked by the physical health of the young men of Britain when they were trying to recruit for the Boer War (1899-1902). They had found that many of the young men were too small or under-nourished to join up. As a result of this, a ‘Committee on Physical Deterioration’ was set up.

The government had worked hard to deal with conditions such as cholera and passed laws to ensure everyone had access to a clean water supply, better houses and education. These efforts however did not do anything to help with people’s nutrition. Approximately a quarter of the people in London did not have enough money to live on, even if they had a permanent job and spent their wages wisely.

Seebohm Rowntree carried out a survey of working class families in the city of York in 1901. He found that even if they had jobs, wages were often too low to ensure a decent standard of living. Children did not get the good diet they needed – partly because their parents were too poor and partly because parents generally did not understand what was needed for a healthy diet. Medical care cost money and parents did not call a doctor for their children unless they were desperate.

Some organisations and charities, like the Salvation Army, intervened where it was most needed by offering cheap meals for children (see Source 4). Some School Boards, notably the London School Board, began to offer cheap, or free, school dinners. Their motive was practical: hungry children cannot learn.

The Liberal government, which was elected with a huge majority in 1906, was committed to reform. The Labour Party, newly formed in 1900 had its first MPs and the Liberals wanted to show that they could look after working people just as well as the Labour Party.

In 1907 they ordered that medical officials had to be told of all babies born, so that midwives could check on their physical condition and give advice to mothers. In 1907 they ordered School Medical examinations to be carried out, so as to catch ill children early. The Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906 was part of the government’s plan to ensure that British children grew up healthy.

Teachers' notes

This lesson could fit into a number of curriculum contexts:

  • As part of the story of improving public health. The 19th century had seen legislation to ensure the basics: clean water, sewage disposal, decent housing. But still, this did not seem enough to ensure a more healthy population. School meals are one of the markers of the state becoming more and more drawn into people’s lives in the 20th century. Compulsory notification of births to a medical officer came in 1915. After the First World War came council houses and after the Second World War, the National Health Service, offering security ‘from the cradle to the grave’ – something the Victorians would never have dreamed of.
  • As part of the story of increasing government intervention in people’s lives. By the latter part of the 20th century, the well-being of individuals had become the concern of the state with regard to their birth, education, child and adult health, housing, old age and death.
  • As a debate about the role of the ‘nanny state’ in society as a whole
  • As an example of the way local government used to regard the people they served: caring for them, ready to intervene in their lives in a big, but rather paternalistic way, and not uncritical
  • For any 20th Century exam course on the development of the welfare state


Sources 1, 2 and 3 – ED 50/8 – Taken from City of Bradford Education Committee Report by the Medical Superintendent, Ralph H Crowley MD, MRCP in conjunction with the Superintendent of Domestic Subjects, Marian E Cuff, on a Course of Meals given to Necessitous Children from April to July, 1907.

Source 4 – Children queuing for Salvation Army ‘Farthing breakfasts’, about 1900 ‘The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre’

External links

Food For Thought
This article tracks the evolution of the school meal from the 19th Century to present day.

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Early 20th Century 1901-1918

Download: Lesson pack

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