THE futures of St Helens' little ones will be brighter, say health experts, as from this September thousands more pupils will receive free hot school meals.

The scheme will be available to all children in reception, year 1 and year 2.

As well as saving parents hundreds of pounds a year on packed lunches or paid-for school meals, public health bosses believe it will help tackle obesity.

Evidence shows that children having a school meal have a healthier diet to those who do not.

Hunger is also said to affect concentration and well-nourished children fare better at school.

Concerns have been raised over the past year, as reported in the Star, that many children are turning up at school without eating breakfast.

In 2012/13 the percentage of obese reception children in St Helens was 10.3 per cent which is similar to the England average.

However, by the ages of 10 and 11 this soars to 21.6 per cent, which is significantly worse than the England average.

The Department of Education says the initiative, spearheaded by deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, means another 4,747 St Helens children - aged between four and seven - are now eligible for free school lunches.

It also means parents who may have previously spent up to £400 a year on packed lunches will reap the financial savings.

Mr Clegg said: "Free school meals for infants will not only save families hundreds of pounds a year but will also have an impact on how a child performs in the classroom so that, regardless of their background, every child can have the best possible start in life.

“Pupils at the pilot schools who were all given free meals were found to be up to two months ahead of their peers elsewhere.

“This is one of the most progressive changes to our school system for a long time. My goal is to create a level playing field for all of our children so their success will be determined by their talents and efforts alone and not by their parents’ bank balance.”

St Helens Council officers have been preparing to embrace by improving kitchen facilities at schools.

For children in year three onwards, free school meals are still means tested.