Universal FSM and obesity, the evidence 


Last weekend, the MailTelegraph and Independent all published stories about free school meals making children fatter, iven the sensationalist headlines,  I though it an appropriate time to make public some analysis I have been doing.

My thought process

Towards the end of last year, we saw huge coverage of the latest HSCIC data on children’s weight. Rightly there was outrage at the fact that around a third of our children were leaving primary school obese or overweight. It is clear that as a nation, we have a huge problem with children’s health and the amount of weight our children put in from the age of four to eleven. What was less well publicised is that these obesity and overweight rates have actually been fairly static for a number of years.

As someone who has long questioned the appropriateness of the state paying for universal free school meals, I started to re-evaluate my position. What if providing a healthy school meal made a difference and cut obesity rates, what if a universal free school meals policy was the elusive silver bullet to address the issue. After all a number of learned Health experts wrote to The Times suggesting the policy could pay for itself.

I looked again for evidence to back up the proposition that universal free school meals improve health and help fight obesity.

The Times letter was frankly hopeless, filled with lots of might’s, coulds and mays. Disappointingly there wasn’t a shred of evidence in there. It seemed little more than a PR exercise designed to garner sensationalist headlines, which is particularly shameful given the names and organisations on there.

I looked again at the only real research, the 2009/12 universal free school meal pilot, which states “There was no evidence that the FSM pilot led to significant health benefits during the two year pilot period. For example, there was no evidence of any change in children’s Body Mass Index.” Not a particularly helpful line if we are hoping to conclude UIFSM improves health.

I couldn’t find anything else, there was no evidence.

But one thing I am not, is a quitter.  So I looked again at the National Child Measurement Programme data and discovered they banded children within LAs. This only really becomes interesting when the knowage that two LAs; Islington and Newham, run their own universal free school meal policy and have done for a number of years. The NCMP also helpfully took measurements in reception as well as in year six, providing a baseline for the current cohort, effectively we have a ready made longitudinal study.

Expected results

If universal free school meals improve the health of children, then within these two LAs, we should expect a gradual increase in the number of healthy weight children over time as they are exposed to the policy for increasing amounts of time.

Equally if UFSM impact on obesity it would seem obvious that the obesity rates in these two LAs should be significantly lower than other similar LAs.


I initially went into great detail explaining my methodology and process, but it’s all a bit boring, so I added it as a note (1)

These are the Yr6 obesity rates for the last 6 years for the two LAs running universal FSM and for London and England as a whole

2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15
ENGLAND 18.3% 18.7% 19.0% 19.2% 18.9% 19.1% 19.1%
LONDON 21.3% 21.8% 21.9% 22.5% 22.4% 22.4% 22.6%
Newham 24.6% 25.9% 24.7% 25.6% 27.3% 25.1% 27.4%
Islington 21.4% 24.8% 21.8% 22.1% 21.8% 21.4% 22.8%


There are the Yr6 rates for pupils who have healthy BMIs for the last 6 years for the two LAs running universal FSM and for London and England as a whole

2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15
ENGLAND 66.1% 65.4% 65.3% 64.9% 65.4% 65.1% 65.3%
LONDON 62.4% 61.6% 61.3% 60.9% 61.0% 60.7% 61.1%
Newham 58.7% 57.5% 58.1% 57.6% 55.9% 57.2% 55.2%
Islington 61.9% 60.3% 60.2% 60.6% 62.6% 60.9% 59.6%


Compared to London as a whole, England and to other LAs, I found no statistically significant change in obesity levels for Islington or Newham. If anything Newham has seen MORE obese children, though it’s not significant (though the increase is enough to give the Mail it’s headline)

Compared to London as a whole, England and to other LAs, I found no statistically significant increase in levels of healthy children for Islington or Newham. If anything Newham has LESS healthy children. (there was no significant difference in the number of underweight children either)

In simple terms this is proof that on their own, universal Free School Meals do not make any difference to children’s BMI.

In addition to my own analysis, I asked both councils for any internal assessments done on the policy, Newham and Islington both confirmed they hadn’t done any assessment of any kind. I find this lack of monitoring  remarkable, given these LAs  spend considerable amounts of money on the project. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect someone would check to see if the policy managed to lower obesity rates, especially given that tackling obesity seems to be the main justification for the policy.


Whilst I would never claim universal FSM makes children fatter, I think its fair to state the evidence shows that the provision of universal free school meals have made no significant impact on childhood obesity rates as measured by BMI.

Why does it matter

It shouldnt come as any real surprise that universal free school meals do not make any difference to health or obesity. The drivers of eating badly and lack of exercise will have much greater impact than free provision of 190 meals a year. It should also be noted that these meals are often not as healthy as many would have us believe. The new standards are not nutritional standards, they are food based standards that place no limits on a meals fat, sugar or salt content. Even then, these standards are not applicable to all schools and even if they were, they are not monitored.

Sadly  we are stuck with an underfunded UIFSM policy and landscape increasingly run by the multinational catering companies.  School catering has become dominated by cheap labour and even cheaper ingredients.

The vested interests within the catering industry are incredibly keen to see this policy continue. They consider Uifsm to be a “Financial bonanza” and have gone to great lengths to pursue and promote their agenda.  Whilst I have long shared their newly found concern about lack of evidence and the governments decision not to research benefits, their concern is driven more by a fear that the policy might get cut and damage their profits than any real desire to provide any new insight.

I believe, for the first time we have gone from having no evidence that UIFSM makes a difference on health or obesity, to being able to clearly demonstrate that Universal meals make no difference to children’s BMI.

This entirely contradicts unjustified and misleading claims about the health benefits of UIFSM, which is why this evidence is so important. More so given the recent changes to the SATs tests. meaning there is no longer a comparable baseline, making it impossible to measure any changes in attainment that may accrue as a result of the policy. This leaves  “health” as the only justification supporters can use, meaning the catering industry continually jump on the obesity bandwagon to promote the UIFSM policy.

Politicians appear to have fallen for this line, to the extent that in saving the policy the former Chancellor placed UIFSM under the headline “security” as if it was protecting our children (2)

In these days of evidence based policy, we need to look closely at the benefits, I believe this is new and compelling proof that unioversal free school meals does not combat obesity, the next decision now lies Justine Greening ,who needs to set out some success criteria and check it offers VFM before throwing yet more money at the scheme.
(1) Initially I looked at the latest data to see if Newham and Islington had significantly lower obesity rates than anywhere else, as it happens they both have extremely high rates, so I obviously had to compare them against similar areas.

I then looked at a couple of London boroughs with similar demographics and similar 2015 profiles to see if Newham and Islington had significantly different outcomes.

I then went further, looking back at the 2014\15 yr 6 cohorts’ baseline data from 2008/9 when the children were in reception, to see if there were differences.

In all of these exercises it was clear that whilst Newham had amongst the highest obesity rates and lowest healthy children rate in the country, Islington fared slightly better, though still at the high end of the scale.

Finally in order to use a fair start point for any comparison I looked at the 2008/9 reception data, found a number of LAs with similar 2008/9 baseline figures and similar demographics (I looked at transiency,  mobility and  ethnicity) to both Islington and Newham. In addition I used the 5 LAs used by the UFSM pilot to compare against Newham as well as the data for the whole of England and London. I looked only at the 2008/9 reception data so as not to influence selection based on the year six outcomes I would then measure.

Using the reception data to direct my selection, I then tracked the year six data from 2008/9 to look for any significant differences and to look at trends.

Individually the picture looks fairly chaotic, with various bumps and jumps from year to year, but looking at trends for each of the chosen LAs, it became fairly obvious that they were all fairly level and that overall, the percentage figures for London and for England as a whole give a good indication of overall trend, though with different start points.

It is important to note that this is a substantial sample, with around 95% of all relevant schoolchildren taking part each year. Well over a million children are measured with confidence intervals over 95%.  Along with the careful selection of control groups who haven’t offered universal FSM, the scale will mitigate many of the variances, like pupils leaving, or a particular poor or especially good caterer.

Now, this isn’t a full scientific trial, it isn’t an RCT and I don’t clai t to be scientific research, I am not a professional statistician and would add the caveat that I may have missed something, but I have run my process and findings past a number of educational data experts who are all satisfied with my methodology and with my workings.

Saying all that, I have some statistical knowledge and have done my best to be as thorough and unbiased in my choice of data and how it is compared as possible.  I am more than willing to provide my files to anyone who wants to go through them.

If anyone has any better suggestions of how we can analyse the benefits of the UIFSM policy, do contact me and explain.

i believe this is as good and thorough an analysis of the data as anyone can do, short of spending millions on an entirely new research program.

One last thing, I understand that BMI isn’t the best way to measure health, but it’s simple, commonly understood and gives historically comparable figures via the base data. I am looking specifically at the benefits of universal FSM on their own, as opposed to being healthy, adding in exercise or school food systems in other countries with different standards and funding.



(2) 2.57 Investing in education and skills will help deliver economic security. In addition to providing 600,000 additional school places, funding for universal infant free school meals will be maintained, supporting healthy eating and saving families around £400 for every infant each year.

This is the full table of LAs I used and their obesity rates, over the next week or so I will post links to all the data.I collated (if there is a demand for it)

Obese Year 6 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15
ENGLAND 18.3% 18.7% 19.0% 19.2% 18.9% 19.1% 19.1%
LONDON 21.3% 21.8% 21.9% 22.5% 22.4% 22.4% 22.6%
Newham 24.6% 25.9% 24.7% 25.6% 27.3% 25.1% 27.4%
Enfield 23.0% 22.7% 25.1% 23.8% 24.1% 24.6% 25.3%
Haringey 20.7% 23.0% 21.1% 23.8% 23.4% 22.8% 22.6%
Manchester 22.6% 24.0% 23.7% 23.6% 24.7% 25.0% 24.1%
Redbridge 20.7% 19.5% 23.2% 23.2% 21.3% 22.7% 23.0%
Wandsworth 20.0% 21.4% 20.9% 20.0% 20.2% 20.3% 20.7%
Southwark 26.7% 26.0% 26.5% 28.5% 26.7% 26.7% 27.9%
Westminster 23.6% 28.6% 22.8% 24.8% 25.3% 25.6% 24.5%
ENGLAND 18.3% 18.7% 19.0% 19.2% 18.9% 19.1% 19.1%
LONDON 21.3% 21.8% 21.9% 22.5% 22.4% 22.4% 22.6%
Islington 21.4% 24.8% 21.8% 22.1% 21.8% 21.4% 22.8%
Newcastle upon Tyne 21.9% 21.9% 24.9% 25.0% 22.8% 23.0% 24.0%
St. Helens 21.7% 21.7% 21.9% 19.7% 21.5% 22.1% 18.3%
Sandwell 24.6% 23.5% 25.9% 25.2% 24.8% 24.5% 25.8%
Luton UA3 21.3% 21.9% 23.2% 23.1% 23.7% 23.6%
Hammersmith and Fulham 22.4% 24.0% 23.7% 25.8% 20.1% 22.4% 23.3%
Hounslow 23.5% 24.6% 23.4% 23.3% 24.6% 23.9% 22.8%
Barking and Dagenham 24.2% 23.6% 24.2% 26.9% 24.4% 26.2% 25.3%
Tower Hamlets 25.7% 25.7% 25.6% 25.1% 26.5% 25.1% 26.7%





Queens Park Infants, the beginning of the end?

On Tuesday, a couple of miles away from my home, Queens Park Infant Academy sent a letter home, informing parents they were ending all their hot meals provision.

“By moving to a cold lunch service we can cut our staffing costs dramatically”

“The money we receive from the Government for free school meals does not cover all our current staffing cost of providing hot meals”

The school can’t be any clearer, ultimately the decision was forced on them by a lack of financial support from the government.

Given the funding level has remained static at £2.30 whilst costs have risen significantly, decisions like this will become increasingly common.  It can’t be a surprise that shortfalls like these occur when the government set the subsidy at the average cost of meals from 2012.

I appreciate this blog is in danger of becoming little more than my repeating the same messages, but surely people can see there is now evidence that it is an issue for all schools? Queen’s Park may be the first large school to go public with its concerns, but it’s clear that other larger schools face similar financial challenges. Ministers can no longer simply pretend it’s a problem that only impacts a few small schools.

As one very well placed insider once said to me “Funding formula is wrong and current DfE too stupid and stubborn to fix it”

How widespread is this issue?

Sadly, even in these austere times, I believe many schools don’t know how much electric, gas or water they spend on UIFSM, few factor in increased equipment depreciation or maintenance. Some may recognise the extra staffing costs involved with serving up the meals, not least because of the recent NI and pension increases along with a significant rise in the minimum wage, but many believe they must persevere with hot meals.

The surprise for me, is that it has taken so long for a school to go public. If Queens Park with 380 pupils can’t afford to serve Chartwells hot meals for £2.30, how are schools with similar costs managing?

Are they managing or are they actually (perhaps unknowingly) diverting funds and subsidising the meals?

How long can this kind of subsidy continue?

But David Cameron saved the policy?

As so often with David Cameron, he ignored the minor issues of working out the finances before opening his mouth.  He made a commitment to keep UIFSM, relishing in the fact people wouldn’t call him Dave the Dinner snatcher in PMQs any more, without giving any real thought to how it will be paid for. (UIFSM cost £600m, we subsequently saw a £600m cut to the ESG)

The Prime Minister took the decision to “Save” universal free school meals, to the great delight of Catering firms who campaigned to preserve the UIFSM policy, ensuring their “financial bonanza” would continue. (The term “financial bonanza” was used to describe UIFSM by no less than Myles Bremner of the School Food Plan, who knows a thing about financial bonanzas after his firm was given £5000 a week by DfE).

What next?

The PM might not grasp the finances, but be in no doubt, DfE have long understood that the £2.30 funding wasn’t enough (I now know they read my blogs, but that’s another story), but their apathy towards this Lib Dem policy means since the end of the coalition, they have shown no interest in doing anything to help.

It will be fascinating to see how DfE play this now.  They must know the steady drip of bad press will increase. Sadly we know from other news stories about the lack of school funding, the DfE instinct is to stick their fingers in their ears, sing La La La and pretend it will all go away. But they also know this is one story that won’t be allowed to disappear.

I can’t make this any simpler

If DfE are going to persevere with the UIFSM policy, they need to increase both the ongoing and capital funding, if they don’t the education of our children will suffer.

I can understand John Vincent resorting to the F word when telling Sam Gyimah the policy needed more cash. Someone in the DFE has to grow some bollocks and either find the money to properly fund the policy or cut the pretense and dump it!




The end of the small school UIFSM grant

And so it’s come to pass, 4.25 on a Friday afternoon, last working day of the month, DfE quietly publish their latest guidance for universal free school meals.  I tweeted the news at 5.08, it was picked up by schoolsweek whose journalists did lots of digging and eventually confirmed my worst fears. It won’t surprise anyone who has followed my blogs that the extra funding for small schools has been cut. DfE didn’t even have the grace to mention they were making the cut to the funding and that this particular funding stream wouldn’t exist in 2016/17. (The support service was cut earlier on in the year)

29 January 2016 4:25pm.  

Removed information about the UIFSM support service because it has been discontinued. Added information about the 2016 to 2017 academic year.”

To give a better idea as to why this small schools funding is so important, this is what the school food plan said; “Small schools face even greater challenges in delivering great school meals than their larger counterparts. With less students to serve, economies of scale are tougher to come by. Many are primaries or located in hard to reach rural areas, often without full kitchens on site.” “Small schools who serve less than a hundred meals a day seldom break even, because of the fixed costs of catering in each school

There are almost 4000 schools with less than 150 pupils, it isn’t scaremongering to say that losing the extra funding will have a massive detrimental impact as these schools are forced to subsidise their meal provision from other budgets. We should be in no doubt, this cut  will cost people their jobs.

This article by Myles Bremner discussing the small school taskforce report (which I am currently fighting to have released), gives an idea of the report contents and perhaps explains why publication might be embarrassing, especially given this latest funding cut.

“an ongoing small schools subsidy should be given to those schools serving fewer than 100 meals a day. The £2,300 additional UIFSM subsidy funding announced for schools with fewer than 150 pupils for 2015-16 is welcome news for small schools; but this will not cover all meal costs in some schools. The P&L for the pilot schools showed that meals for small schools could cost an additional 17p-36p per meal served; without any additional subsidy, this would lead to an annual loss.”

Many of these small schools struggle to find a caterer who will offer them at a meal for £2.30, but it is a legal requirement to provide meals to all infants. The schools don’t have a choice in the matter, so even with the extra £2300 some schools were struggling to find any provision, never mind break even. (see note 1).  For a school of 50 children (quite common in my county of Dorset), finding £2300 from other already stretched budgets will be impossible. I genuinely believe it could be the final straw that means some schools, many of whom are already borderline viable, will be forced to make redundancies and eventually close down.

DFE can pretend this was never supposed to be a permanent funding stream, but everyone involved understands that this money is the only way UIFSM can be viable in small schools.

Since publicising the cuts, I received a number of messages on this subject, i had caterers an heads pointing out “It won’t be enough to cover costs”, “Heartbroken for children, schools, staff etc. Lots to lose jobs as well as hungry children” “currently use grant to cover costs of staff, transport, utilities and equipment & avoid taking from T&L funding.” “We have to pay for our meals to be transported from our supply kitchen, making a significant loss.” “Our contractor say only way to reduce costs is reduce staff hours or quality of ingredients.”

Jeanette Orrey MBE ( who worked on the school dinners program with Jamie Oliver) tweeted16 years forward 4 years back where is the stability for children catering teams schools”. She went on to publish this strongly worded statement. Reminding everyone “The government knew from the outset that many small schools would struggle to deliver UIFSM without appropriate support.”

Linda Cregan of the Children’s food trust, put out an equally forthright view in her statement “UIFSM is a legal requirement and its funding must be sufficient to make sure every child gets a good meal”

Perhaps one of the most interesting responses was from Russell Hobby of NAHT, who has always been a supporter of the policy.

I like the idea of feeding children. But the purpose of a school is first to educate children. If some schools are not getting economies of scale in any case, would we not be better off abandoning this scheme in those schools and going back to the original plan of giving free meals only to those who cannot afford them? Alternatively, if this is a policy priority for the government, it could fund its policy appropriately. Currently it is forcing schools to make sacrifices to deliver conflicting aims. Forgive this last line given the context but the government cannot have its cake and eat it.

Meanwhile Henry Dimbleby was altogether more sanguine about the funding cut, tweetingit’s going to be ok.” In reply to one caterers concern over her future.

Noticeable by his absence, is Myles Bremner, who as a director of the School food plan, is now in charge of the day to day business of the SFP. His firm, Bremner & Bremner are paid £1000 a day by DfE, so it will be interesting to see if we get our money’s worth when he eventually responds. 

So there we have it, Dfe saving itself £10m,  a contentious report is being buried and a government brazenly ignored the conclusion, meanwhile small schools face rising costs and need this extra funding more than ever.

Time for DFE to decide, ditch the policy, find more money or watch small schools close?


Note 1

Many small schools are rural  with little if  any choice in providers and where it isn’t uncommon for small schools to pay £2.75 just for the meal (they have to fund the electric, gas, water and equipment, themselves). This was one message I received “we subsidise hot meals to the tune of £6000 per year. That is a big chunk of our small school’s budget.”  This is by no means unusual. I know a mid size caterer in a rural area who charges schools £2.40 (so schools are already finding an extra 10p a meal), but they have dropped a number of the smaller and more isolated schools, because it simply isn’t financially viable for them to drive 10 miles each way to drop off 20 meals.  None of the larger caterers will go anywhere near these schools, Local Authorities no longer run in house catering that tend to cross subsidise and support these schools and given the latest cuts in local government  funding, few have the funds to provide new kitchens, which would run at a loss anyway. These schools just seem to have been hung out to dry.




Is keeping UIFSM funding at 2012 levels really “the Fairest way” ?

In today’s Guardian, Warwick Mansell wrote a small piece  about the ongoing UIFSM funding. He was basically highlighting the fact the figure of £2.30 was sneaked out in an obscure EFA e-bulletin just before Christmas.

What I found shocking and depressing was the disingenuous  DfE response. A spokesman for the DfE said: “We decided that the fairest way to continue to programme was to keep the existing rate of £2.30 per meal, found to be the average cost of providing a primary school meal.”

Firstly, £2.30 was the average cost of providing a primary school meal back in 2012!

Secondly how is keeping 2016-17 funding at a mean level from 2012 in any way fair?

To be clear £2.30 was the 2011-12 mean cost (pg 39)  for providing primary school meals (please note this was the cost of producing the meal, not what parents pay) and being the average cost means many primaries will have paid more.  Sadly the 2011-12 report on school meals was the last one available, as Michael Gove cut the Children’s Food Trust funding and it is no longer able to conduct it’s extremely useful  annual survey.

But this isn’t the only evidence that £2.30 is an inadequate amount.  In the UIFSM pilot, Newham started with a cost of £2.59 in 2009 rising to £2.63 in 2011. (pg 126), even in the school food plans own evidence, 5 out of 47 primary schools had production costs above £2.30.  More recently school food plan author  John Vincent “suggested there should be a greater taxpayer spend per meal” to school meals minister Sam Gyimah, before having a bit of a swear (which all seemed reasonable enough too me), so there is no doubt at all that DfE know this 2012 funding level is leaving some schools out of pocket.

Whilst we have seen a period of low inflation, Food prices have still increased, utility bills have risen and in April we have  a significant rise in the national minimum wage. All of these add inflationary pressures to school meal prices and whilst some of this will be mitigated by economies of scale and optimising working practices, many schools will face an substantial increase in their costs above and beyond the governments £2.30 funding. The scale of this problem is unknown, but i suspect it will be a significant number, sadly (or fortunately) no one is collating and publishing the figures.

One thing is certain, some schools are being forced into subsidising the policy from other budgets and their children are losing out as a result.

So how can it be described as “the fairest way” when these costs must be borne by schools rather than the DFE?  In the long list of crass DfE PR, describing the dumping of costs onto schools as “fair” takes some beating.  It only seems “Fair” if you are hidden away from reality in the DfE and don’t have to find any extra money to pay for the UIFSM policy the Prime Minster surprised everyone by saving. Its only fair if you only care about overall DfE spending staying within George Osborne’s austerity constraints and don’t consider the impact on individual infant school budgets. its only fair if you are intent on transferring as much of the policy cost away from DfE as possible.

By keeping the funding at 2012 levels, DfE are avoiding any semblance of fairness. The fairest way involves providing an adequate level of policy funding so schools are not out of pocket.  DfE know full well that retaining 2012 rates and under funding a statutory policy, is most definitely unfair.


Be careful what you wish for… David Cameron “Saves UIFSM”

Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true!

After months of prevarication about Universal Infant Free School Meals policy, today David Cameron said in the House of Commons today that the Government will ‘be keeping it.’ though he made no mention of how it will be funded.

In Prime Ministers Questions, Cameron said: “I am immensely proud that is was a government I led that introduced this policy {Universal Infant Free School Meals}. I’m proud of what we’ve done and we’ll be keeping it.”

In the blood lust to capitalise on the government’s indecision on the future of universal infant free school meals, opposition MPs blindly prioritised UIFSM above support for other interventions, they ignored the consequences of “Saving” UIFSM, preferring to try and embarrass the PM for political gain.

and it worked. The Prime minister once again deferred to short-term media agenda and crisis management, rather than actual evidence. Around 40,000 signatories, the counsel of a fellow Etonian and the threat of “Dave the dinner snatcher” seem to enough to scare Cameron these days

We should be quite clear, saving UIFSM will not miraculously halt departmental cuts.  Saving one policy from the cutbacks will just deflect the cuts more heavily onto other unprotected DFE budgets. Early years, further education and pupil premium will undoubtedly suffer now UIFSM is staying.

Even worse, because UIFSM is already underfunded and costs are rising, “Saving” UIFSM will eventually harm schools as they are forced to subsidise the policy. John Vincent fell out with ministers when he told the home truth that UIFSM actually needs more money. As Nicky Morgan is forced by number 10 into keeping UIFSM,  do we now expect her to find an extra £200m next year, or will these extra costs just be loaded onto schools to fund from their over-stretched but ring-fenced budgets?

Whilst I have regularly pointed out these obvious consequences, the UIFSM supporters have studiously avoided any mention of the funding. In fact they haven’t engaged at all, no one has put up a defence of their “evidence”, they just scuttle about persuading anyone they can to sign nebulous fact free letters to the times.  Where will these people be when colleges close, when job cuts are announced? Where will they be when schools have sack TAs, in order to top up the funding to pay for the minimum wage rises, where will they be when small schools shut as their costs predictably exceed their subsidy ?

No one should be in any doubt that benefits of UIFSM have been seriously over egged and that good people have been taken in by the hype, misinformation and at times blatant lies of supporters. there are serious vested interests at play and serious money to be made.

The key question to reflect on is does this policy provide value for money? At approaching £850 million next year, the main beneficiaries remain parents who previously paid for school meals (a deadweight cost that simply wouldn’t be acceptable in any other area of education). I haven’t seen anyone suggest UIFSM offers VFM and that is for good reason, it’s an argument that doesn’t stand it up.

They haven’t even bothered researching the benefits, we will never know if the policy makes a difference because no one is monitoring the policy. It’s obscene that we are spending £850,000,000 and no one has even defined what a success is?

Meanwhile we are overwhelmed with stories about children living on poverty who are not entitled to a free school meal, with tales of children going without breakfast and the shocking increase in numbers of children going hungry in holidays. I would contend that these are areas that are in need of funding, that these areas should be a greater priority than UIFSM.

Frank Field put it perfectly “The threat to UIFSM could also give the education secretary a golden opportunity to make better use of her department’s limited resources. Some 1.5 million poor children are currently disqualified from receiving free school meals because their parents claim tax credits to top up their income from low-paid work. Abolishing this penalty would help, in some considerable way, to cement the government’s commitment to ensuring work is the best route out of poverty.”

We shouldn’t be in any doubt this is about priorities, the conservatives are intent on cutting departmental budgets, it is fanciful to imagine the government will somehow find additional money for these other areas of need like holiday hunger AND properly fund UIFSM.

The UIFSM policy brings relatively few benefits for relatively few pupils, we had a small window of opportunity to affect a change, to argue the case for keeping the money in school meals and. to ensure those in greatest need are protected, I doubt very much that will happen now.

I may be old fashioned but i think is perverse that the state pays for the meals of millionaire infants whilst at the next table, older children living in desperate poverty go without. It’s even more perverse that schools and Las be expected to fund the policy from already overstretched budgets and frankly its disgraceful that these consequences were hidden from the public and never openly debated.

Universal free school meals are no panacea, they are not a priority and will drain an overstretched education budget.

Be careful what you wish for……



The scandal of Child poverty. Some practical steps we can take to address the issue

Yesterday I watched an Ruth Smeeth MP use the House of Commons Adjournment Debate to raise the issue of Child poverty and holiday hunger. She gave an excellent, impassioned speech, well researched, full of facts to show about how difficult life can be for those poorest and weakest in society, I was suitably impressed that a new MP could do so well, so it was particularly annoying to see her arguments ignored by the minister who didn’t see fit to include anything pertinent about holiday hunger in his response.

She seemed to descend into the trap I sometimes fall, providing all the facts, all the supporting proof and assuming that is enough to win the argument. But as history shows, evidence alone won’t always win you the political argument.

I am therefore finishing off an old blog which takes on the issues raised and offers a way forward, a way of prioritising these children who desperately need our help without asking for new money.

Since publishing the blog, I have become aware of a letter to the Sunday Times, claiming uifsm should be saved due to its impact on child poverty.  I believe this view to be badly misjudged and one that ignores the evidence.  I would encourage any signituaries  to read this blog and put foreard any response they might have in the comments. I don’t bite and am always happy to listen to a different view.


Child poverty exists 365 days a year, it’s all encompassing and exists across all school year groups in all areas of the country, rural and urban, country or seaside. Poverty is pervasive and endures when schools break up for the weekend or for holidays. It is a stain on our society that so many live in such conditions and it is about to get worse as the latest Tax credit cuts bite.

Some statistics 

Half of all school aged children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals. 

Two-thirds (64 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one member works (This is mainly due to the fact that those eligible for working benefits, like working tax credits, are not eligible for FSM, even though they are living in poverty.)

    Currently around 28% of the countries school children live in poverty.

Of these 15.2% are eligible for free school meals because of parental benefits claims.

This means we have the appalling situation wherea whopping 12.8% of our school population are living in poverty but not receiving a free school meal.

This is the context that drives me to say we need to do more to help these children, to argue this is where we should focus our effort and where we should be investing our time and resources.


Whatever political allegiances, we are forced to recognise that this government is cutting budgets for both social care and education. Those who think there is a magic money pot that will deliver new funding sources and new policies, need to think again.  Like it or not the Conservatives have a majority and they are going to cut government spending and they are going to cut hard.

We have to be pragmatic, under this government, there simply isnt going to be more money. We cant be idealistic and hold out for any particular policy without understanding that other budgets will get cut as a consequence. That is why there is a urgent need to focus on those in greatest need, for evidence based policy, but also demonstrating value and promoting a positive agenda for change.

Beyond the propaganda

We need to see through the propaganda from the vested interests who promote universal infant free school meals. These supporters will continue to push false arguments and made up statistics, they are desperate to save face and keep the money rolling in, we need to be smarter.

When there isn’t likely to be any other source of funding to feed children. we really need to question if spending £850m on universal infant free school meals is a truly a priority.

The Department for Education are clearly (and rightly) unconvinced the policy offers Value for Money. They don’t see evidence of benefits, they are concerned the costs are spiraling and there are better ways to spend the money. Which makes it the ideal time to nudge them into focusing on those in greatest need. Offer them a strong alternative that will do more good, that will help more pupils and in times of austerity, really bring them bang for their buck.

I know there are people who dream of all children to be given a free school meal, but they must accept that would take up 10% of the education budget, there needs to be realistic expectations of the policies impact and the finances.


We need to think beyond the fact uifsm sounds a nice policy and ask what else could this vast amount be used for?

Children go hungry in school holidays, so why not feed and support them during holidays?

Children arrive at school hungry, so why not properly fund breakfast clubs?

Hundreds of thousands of our children living in poverty are not entitled to a free school meal, we could and should feed them!  A simple change the eligibility criteria for free school meals could include those deemed to be living in poverty. We have the data, we know which benefits they claim, we know who these children are and where they live. FEED THEM!

We cant just bury our heads in the sand, UIFSM has few tangible benefits.  It is already underfunded, many schools already subsidise the cost from teaching budgets. it is a drain on limited resources and yet does very little to help those children in greatest need. As costs continue to rise, unless the government finds yet more money to fund it properly, it will be an even greater drain on even more schools. Just maintaining it as is, will have a devastating knock on effect on early years and FE as to satisfy the Treasury, they get cut instead?

So it is a stark choice, Push to help ALL of our most vulnerable children, or continue with a phenomenally expensive and badly thought through policy whose main beneficiaries are those wealthy enough to afford for a school meal.

I happen to think it is perverse that we continue to feeds the children of millionaires whilst the poorest and weakest go hungry. We need to get our priorities right and fight their corner on those who are in greatest need of our help.

I dont just argue for an end to universal infant free school meals, I argue we use the money to help those actually in need. Those who defend UIFSM above all else, are doing the poorest children a disservice.


The Conservative conference and its impact of school food (but dont mention UIFSM)

At the recent Conservative party conference (where talk of school meals was conspicuously absent as though it was banned for some reason), two announcements from the podium caught my attention because of their indirect impact on school meals.

First off was David Cameron’s “all schools will become academies” pronouncement (yes, I know he said it before).

Rightly people are sceptical and most of those who know primary sector understand it is pure politics and not likely to happen any time soon. Not least due to the lack of suitable high quality MATs who can take on thousands of primary schools. But a little thought through consequence is the impact such a move will have on school food.

Many local authorities still organise and manage catering contracts, indeed many still run their own schools catering services. (I am not going to get into the pros and cons of in-house verses commercial caterers, there are pros and cons for each) needless to say, all this will change as more and more schools convert to academies and LAs have their budgets cut and cut and cut again.

I suspect most people don’t realise quite how much LAs support the school meal service. This could be hard subsidies where councils like Islington knowingly and consciously subsidise the service. Or softer hidden subsidies, many schools use LA provision without realising they are benefiting from economies of scale brought about centralised bulk contracts, often in rural areas, schools receive support on transportation costs as larger contracts cross subsidise

Perhaps the most common funding is where schools rely on LAs for assistance with equipment and kitchens.  Schools spurn setting aside money or depreciating larger items, safe in the knowledge if a ten grand oven needs replacing, the LA will sort it and sort it quickly.

In purely practical terms, if you remove LAs from the equation, you lose LA subsidies.

End LA subsidies and costs will undoubtedly rise for schools, particularly small schools.

We also saw an unusual announcement by Nicky Morgan, as she informed conference that she was giving parents the right of free speech (something most people assumed they had already). More specifically she announced that parents would be given “the right to request” schools to open their doors longer during the day and throughout holidays.

I doubt there have been many instances of parents being banned from asking any question, but the Secretary of State clearly wants to ensure even if it did ever happen, it won’t ever happen again.

Of course it is classic crass soundbite politics from the PM wannabe, pretending there is an issue and pretending to come up with a solution.(it isnt even anything new)

She isn’t actually ordering schools to open up a swathe of new after-school childcare, simply be open to the idea that someone else might want to use the school facilities.  But Parents and groups have always been able to ask use school premises and I suspect where practical most schools have done their best to help and comply.

But it seems NiMo was pushing for a headline, that she alone was overseeing a revolution in childcare, she was personally ordering those lazy good for nothing schools to do more.

The problem is, without more money going into the system, nothing will really change. Parents and third party providers will ask schools to use the facilities, and schools will rightly say, we are already using the hall for our own afterschool activities and/or we would have to charge you for insurance, utilities, cleaning and rent, which is often a deal breaker.

It all reminds of Nick Clegg and his blasted universal infant free school meals. A policy that offers up great sound bites but the lack of thought prior to announcing it at conference means it impractical for all schools.

Perhaps Nicky Morgan would have been better employed supporting schools and funding to a level that allows the schools to open longer? Because (this may be a surprise) the idea that schools open longer, particularly through the holidays is one that appeals to me and I support, with the caveat it is properly funded.

By opening schools early we could run proper breakfast clubs, helping address the scandal of children going hungry through the morning because they missed breakfast.

Opening in school holidays would give the poorest pupils the opportunity to have a healthy lunch in school, which would go a long way to addressing the issue of holiday hunger. It also has the added benefit of keeping some of the most vulnerable in touch with school and linked in to the learning environment. I am not suggesting lessons all through the holidays, but talking to a teacher or TA about the book they are reading, could be just the thing to keep children interested in their education

But as always it’s about money. Setting up after school and holiday clubs that run on a fully commercial basis, does nothing to help those in poverty whose need for such provision is often the greatest.

Schools are in an ideal position to help struggling or chaotic families, but as always it all costs. Sadly the Secretary of State doesn’t seem to be putting the money where her mouth is.