Can schools decide what pupils can eat while at school?

Once again healthy eating in schools is in the spotlight, this time with news that a school in Bradford has banned and confiscated sausage rolls, pork pies and flavoured drinks from the packed lunches of its pupils. This type of story has been a recurring theme ever since Jamie Oliver's well known drive to improve the health of our nation's children as schools try to implement healthy eating policies.

LA maintained schools and most academies are required by law to follow the government's published standards for school meals, however these do not apply to packed lunches. Schools are free to create their own policies in relation to packed lunches. Where any such policy is to be put in place, parents should be consulted on proposals in advance. Pupils and parents should be made fully aware of contents of the policy once adopted. Policies may be aspirational, such as "the school encourages packed lunches to contain…" or may be a strict policy requiring compliance, such as "packed lunches must be…". The policy should include details covering if and how the policy will be enforced.

Schools in England have some limited powers to search pupils and their possessions under section 550ZA Education Act 1996. These powers are primarily focussed on searching for illegal or dangerous items. However, they also cover items banned in the school's published behaviour policy. If items of food/drink are banned in the school's behaviour policy and it is published in accordance with s.89 Education and Inspections Act 2006 then it may be possible to use these powers to search pupils for food/drink. Under these powers, schools could confiscate items of food prohibited by school rules and it would be up to the school to decide whether to keep, dispose, or return the item to the pupil. If these powers do not apply then a search could only be with the pupil's consent and it is doubtful whether the school would lawfully be able to confiscate the item (permanently or temporarily).

Any search of a pupil must be done strictly within the limits of s.550ZB, which include:

A) The search must be conducted by the headteacher or someone authorised by the headteacher.

B) They must be accompanied by a second person (unless there is an urgent risk of serious harm).

C) The person must be of the same gender as the pupil (unless there is an urgent risk of serious harm).

D) The search can require taking off outer items of clothes (such as a jacket) but no more.

E) Possessions such as bags or lunchboxes can only be searched in the pupil's presence and as above.

This is a controversial area and we would recommend you seek specialist advice before implementing or policing a policy in this way. Remember also that the school's reputation with parents and the community is vital. There are pros and cons of a strict policy in relation to packed lunches, despite best intentions of promoting healthy eating.