EVERY primary school pupil in part of the region will receive a free school meal in a radical trial designed to improve their learning, the Government will announce today.

County Durham has been picked to pilot a £16m experiment, following increasing evidence that a guaranteed lunch can significantly boost health, concentration and behaviour – leading to better school performance.

If the two-year trial, starting in September, is successful, it could be expanded to every primary school in England, although the estimated cost is a daunting £1bn a year.

A delighted Durham County Council said the initiative would deliver free daily meals to an extra 30,000 youngsters at its 239 primary schools – up from only 5,700 currently.

And it welcomed the financial boost for families “feeling the pinch”, estimating the saving at £17-a-week for a family with two children.

Councillor Claire Vasey, Durham’s cabinet member for children, said: “We are thrilled to be part of this scheme, which represents a major opportunity to improve the health, well-being and educational attainment of children.

“We know that children who enjoy a nutritious and balanced diet are more likely to grow up fit and healthy and do better at school.”

The move was also hailed by Roberta Blackman-Woods, the Durham City MP, who – along with Gateshead East MP Sharon Hodgson – has led calls for every pupil to eat for free.

Dr Blackman-Woods said: “I believe giving children a healthy meal is so important for their learning and development.

That is why I was one of the lead campaigners in parliament for the free school meal pilots.”

County Durham, along with Gateshead and North Tyneside, were shortlisted for the trial last year.

Now Durham, along with Newham Council, in London, will give every primary pupil a free school meal, while Wolverhampton will offer free meals to a wider group of children.

The results will be tested against a control group where the current, strict eligibility rules apply, also examining whether the trials cut obesity and improve eating habits at home.

Last month, the Department for Children, Schools and Families published research which found significant improvements in test results among 11- year-olds eligible for free school meals.

Performance rose by two per cent in English, maths and science last year, which followed a one per cent improvement in 2007.

Yet, currently, only 43 per cent of primary school children sit down for a cooked school meal – which means more than half miss out on what, for some, could be the only healthy, hot meal of the day.

In addition, ministers are also concerned by evidence that many pupils refuse to eat school meals because they fear being “stigmatised” and are embarrassed about their family’s income.

The Government-backed School Food Trust also warned, last year, that more than 25,000 youngsters across the North-East were not entitled to a free school meal – even though they were classed as living in poverty.

The children did not qualify because their parents were not receiving benefits, forcing them to pay at least £300-ayear for a hot meal at lunchtime.

Sue Bainbridge, headteacher at the Red Rose Primary School, in Chester-le- Street, which has 230 pupils aged between five and 11, was enthusiastic about the move.

“It means all of our children can now have school meals, regardless of cost. I think that is a great move forward, especially for County Durham, which has a high deprivation score,” she said.

“Currently, about 140 children stay for school meals, which cost £8.25 a week, while the rest bring packed lunches.

“I have families which have two or three children at our school and it soon mounts up.

This will save parents hundreds of pounds a year.”

Explaining today’s move, Children’s Secretary Ed Balls said: “Healthy school dinners feed the minds and bodies of our children, helping them to get the most out of their school day.

“We are determined that those eligible for free school meals, but not claiming them, do so. It is not good enough that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are missing out on a free healthy meal every school day.”

Mr Balls said the trials would build on £650m already being put into raising nutritional standards and keeping dinner prices down, as well as better school kitchens and cooking lessons.

A total of £20m of Government cash has been set aside for the three trials, sums that will be matched by the local councils in each area.

Until now, only Hull City Council has tested out free meals for all, but the scheme was scrapped when the Liberal Democrats took over from Labour, before it had been properly evaluated.