The low down on Labours Free School meals costings

Given today’s Labour Manifesto contains the promise “To aid attainment, we will introduce free school meals for all primary school children, paid for by removing the VAT exemption on private school fees.” I thought it appropriate to take a closer look at their costings.

Labour appear to extrapolate their figures based on a House of Commons Library briefing paper, which does little more than state the current funding position. They then use the recent IFS report into their estimates to underpin their figures, even though IFS published after the policy was announced.

I am conscious of providing political ammunition, and will endeavour to analyse the other party’s commitments when they come out. But as it stands, I do not think the Labour FSM calculations add up. I think they are significantly underestimating the future cost of their proposed free school meals policy.

State of the Nation

The spending commitments all appear based on the current Universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) funding, which it turn use the 2012 Children’s Food Trust research data. The CFTs Seventh annual survey found the mean cost of providing a primary school meal in 2011\12 was £2.30.
The £2.30 was broken down as 67p on ingredients, 43p on overheads and £1.20 on labour. This figure became the de facto amount schools would receive per meal under UIFSM.

A mean cost of £2.30 will see some schools with higher costs and some lower. Under the current system, those with lower costs make a bit extra money each meal, however as you would expect, there are significant numbers of schools whose costs are higher than the amount they receive. To be clear, these schools are forced into subsidising their meal service from other budgets. This is particularly prevalent in smaller schools who can’t achieve economies of scale.

Since 2012 when these figures were calculated, we have seen significant food price inflation, we have also experienced unrelenting prices rises from the utility providers. But most significantly we have seen the adult minimum wage rise from its 2012 level of £6.08 to today’s £7.50.  Add onto this the extra National insurance and pension costs and an industry that is extremely labour intensive is confronting significant cost pressures.
The current picture for UIFSM is far from rosy, some schools being forced into making cuts to teaching because the £2.30 per meal isn’t enough and tales of caterers cutting back on quality as their costs rise against a fixed income.

Labour plans 

Looking forward and assuming a labour victory and the point where Jeremy Corbyn implements his Universal Junior FSM policy.

The first thing to note is that older children eat more, the cost of producing a meal for a 4 year old reception child is very different to that of a 11yr old in year six,  also inflation is on the rise again, all adding yet more cost pressures.

However it is wages that remain the biggest factor needing to be accounted for, because of the simple fact, if Labour win they have promised to increase the minimum wage to £10 per hour in 2020.

That’s around 65% higher than the £6.08 rate in force when the £2.30 per meal was calculated. With the research showing labour constituting over half the meal costs (52%), the rise in minimum wage would push labour costs up from its baseline of £1.20 to £1.97 around 86% of the grant, leaving  32p for ingredients and everything else. Basically, if the national minimum wage goes up, it simply becomes untenable for caterers to provide a meal for £2.30.

These cost increases would leave Labour with a difficult choice, do they leave the grant at £2.30 per meal and let schools to find the extra from their already stretched budgets, or do they bite the bullet and increase the meal funding in line with wages and inflation?
At this point, it is also worth remembering that any increase will not simply apply to the junior meals being promised, the implications also would also result in an increase to the infant free school meals grant, taking it beyond the current £600,000,000.

The real costs

It is obviously up to the new government to decide the level of grant it gives, but I prepared the following illustrations at different amounts.

A rise to £2.50 would make the ongoing cost of Labours junior school FSM policy £870m, add an extra £50m for infants and around £180m for the rest of the UK. Total £1.1 billion

A rise to £2.75 would be £950m add an extra £120m for infants and around £230m for the rest of the UK Total £1.3 billion

A rise to £3.00 would make the ongoing cost £1.03bn add an extra £190m for infants and around £280m for the rest of the UK Total £1.45 billion

A full catch up, using the 2012 base, adding inflation to the ingredients and utilities (2012-17 multiplier = 1.12) and the full pro rate rise in minimum wage would push the cost per meal up to £3.20

That would cost £1.11bn add an extra £235m for infants and around £320m for the rest of the UK Total £1.66 billion.

Infrastructure and Capital costs

Onto the capital costs, which will never be an exact figure, given not even the government knows the state of the school estate. On this Labour don’t appear to make any specific commitment, though the IFS appear to use the coalitions spending on the infant schools and proportion up from there.

The issue here is the amount spent on infants was known to be inadequate at the time, the implementation was rushed and political priorities overrode everything else. It is an area I have some specialised knowledge of, not least because I entered numerous FOI requests and saw hundreds of funding applications that were rejected.

The figures used do not take into account the schools who needed funding and didn’t receive any, or the extra funding put in by LAs and schools themselves.  I would contest the baseline UIFSM capital figure being used in significantly lower than it should be.

We must also consider how much capacity schools have to provide meals for all junior children. Because of UIFSM, many primary schools are running flat out, their kitchens can barely cope and the dining halls are full. Some now don’t allow juniors to have hot meals because they simply can’t cope.

Implementing Junior FSM would require the provision of significant extra capacity in both kitchens and halls. Schools have to plan and be able to cope with 100% take up. This would mean a number of schools needing new dining halls, and they don’t come cheap. There will also need to be a process of refitting and rebuilding kitchens as many are not designed to cope with these kind of high numbers.

It’s my view, the infrastructure costs for the 17000 primary schools would likely be in excess of a £1billion. I accept there is a degree of guesswork, but with a new hall starting at £500,000 and a new kitchen costing in excess of  £50,000, it won’t be hard to see costs quickly rise beyond the Billion pound mark.

Value for Money

Labour will undoubtedly need to raise the amount it pays schools for each meal. They will end up spending  3-5% of the whole schools budget on a policy that has no strong evidence base, does nothing for health and offers appalling value for money.  I cant for the life of me, conclude this is a priority for education.


Advice for schools struggling to meet their UIFSM costs

Up and down the country, school leaders are finalising their budgets. It sounds simple and straight forward, but this year everyone is finding it incredibly difficult to balance the books.

Spare a thought then for the thousands of smaller primary schools who face the particular hardship inflicted by the universal infant free school meals policy. My veiws on the policy are well documented, as are my struggles with DfE to publish the Small School Taskforce report that shows smaller schools need extra financial support. Despite this the government cut the grant, meaning many school now face a shortfall on their catering provision.

I have been asked by a number of Head teachers and Governors about the legal position and for advice to help about their predicament. Sadly there is no official help any more (that was cut as well), nor is there any easy solution.

Legal position

Schools have a legal requirement to offer free school meals to all their reception, year 1 and year 2 pupils.

Subject to meeting this legal duty, schools may spend any excess funds for the purposes of the school; that is to say for the educational benefit of pupils registered at that school.

For each meal taken by an eligible pupil the school currently receives £2.30. DfE assume pupils take 190 school meals over an academic year, this equals £437 per pupil PA.

DfE calculate the allocation using the number of pupils recorded as taking a meal in the October and January school censuses, they then subtract those pupils known to be eligible for FSM in the same censuses who are taking a meal. This figure is then divided by 2 to give the average number of eligible UIFSM pupils.

Areas to note

The payments are based on the numbers “taking a meal” on the 2 census days. How many take a meal on other days is inconsequential to the funding calculations.

Schools only have an obligation to “offer” a meal.

Any surplus funding can be spent by the school, however it likes (within reason).


Optimising your income
I would strongly recommend that schools do absolutely everything in their powers to ensure that the take up on the census days is as close to 100% as they can get it. Offer incentives, special menus, plan celebration or international days, really pull out the stops. Don’t be afraid to explain the situation to parents and invite them in. Every extra child is going to boost your income by £437, so I can’t stress this enough, on those two days, every infant child in school should be “taking a meal”.
Understand your meal costs
Many schools inadvertently subsidise the policy, they don’t account for water, electric, gas, consumables. Few will depreciate their equipment even though it is under increasing stress. I would advise any school leaders to drill down and ensure they list and understand the true costs of implementing the policy in their school.

Schools get £2.30 per meal, regardless of how much the meal actually costs them (that was the mean cost of a primary school meal in 2012).

If you are a big 360 pupil infants, with everyone signed up on census day, you will receive £157,320 PA

With economies of scale, you could well be paying £2.00 (or less) per meal resulting in a net “profit” of £20,520, to spend on pupils.

Conversely, if you are a small school, you will inevitably have higher costs (and dfe know this)

A small school with 50 eligible children, will likely have meal costs of £2.80 (and higher), this equates to a loss of £4,750 just on the meal provision.

To be blunt, that money has to come from somewhere within the school budget.

Now comes the difficult bit.

In simple terms, schools need to game the system. I have already explained how to boost income, schools must now consider how they can cut expenditure whilst still complying with the legal requirements.

A school just has a duty to “Offer” a meal. It is then up to the parent if that offer is taken up.

I would therefor suggest to any school faced with having to subsidise the UIFSM provision, write to parents, explaining the situation. Be blunt, point out that not only are small schools facing the same well publicised hardships other schools face, but that they are being forced to subsidise the children’s meals. Highlight how the meals are not free, the cost is to their children’s education and it is putting the school at risk as the funding level is unsustainable.

Obviously those on FSM as a safety net should always be fed as a priority, but there is nothing to stop schools asking those who can afford it, to bring in packed lunches or to make a “donation” (so long as it’s not a charge for the meals).

Normally I would say the worst thing that could happen is some parent goes to the press and kicks up a fuss. In this instance it will just go to highlight the schools plight and the difficult position small schools are being placed in.

Most nationals are at best agnostic to UIFSM, the Mail have regularly riled against the UIFSM policy, whilst papers like the Guardian, TES and Schoolsweek have regularly published stories that paint struggling schools in a good light.  I would expect any press coverage will draw in local MPs and raise the profile of the issues, even more so with an election due. It will be far more embarrassing for the ministers who cut desperately needed funding, than it will be for schools doing their best to manage.

I am suggesting that small schools consider complying with the letter of the law, but ignore the spirit.

UIFSM is a shambolic policy, don’t let it ruin your school.


Labours Universal Free school meals… Poor policy from a poor Leader


The past few days have been eventful, not least because Jeremy Corbyn surprised everyone, including many of his those in his own party, by making a big announcement about the Labour party’s new, ground-breaking education policy idea was……………….. half Micheal Goves idea and half the Lib Dems idea.

The first half of his plan; to tax private school fees, will obviously go down well with everyone who doesn’t pay school fees. Taxing the rich is always going to draw in support, especially with Labour left. OK, there are quibbles about how much it will raise and the unintended consequences of parents leaving private schools and returning to the state sector, but on the whole, most people, including me, seem supportive of this move.

Unfortunately for Labour, the free school meal aspect hasn’t been universally welcomed.  People have quite rightly pointed out the evidential flaws used in the justification and more importantly, questioned if providing free food should be a priority when our education system is facing the deepest funding crisis ever.

I generally stay out of politics, but as this is one of my pet issues I stuck my head up above the parapet. My opinion was sought by many, my blogs saw renewed interest and I was asked to write something for TES (well worth a read if i do say so).  What I wasn’t expecting was the level of vitriol and general hatred for simply reiterating my longstanding and to my mind, well thought through position. I had inadvertently along with others like Laura McInerney and Gaby Hinsliff taken on the mantle of the Child catchers’ evil sibling who specialised in laughing at children whilst they starved to death. There was little honest debate, just a rabid left shouting at anyone who disagreed with their beloved leader.

I tried to engage, often failed, but I managed to distil it down to 4 main arguments that seem to go

  • There is plenty of money to do everything and we love universal benefits
  • Schools single out FSM children and stigmatise them
  • You are a child hating tory bastard
  • You are a bastard tory child hater

As a fair minded sort, I will respond to each argument in turn

Firstly, there is NOT enough money to do everything everyone wants.

There I’ve said it. Politics, like Life is about compromise and priorities.

This isn’t to suggest I buy into the current austerity drive, just that with underfunded Education, competing with the underfunded NHS and the underfunded Police and underfunded prison service.  We would have to see an unprecedented turnaround in economic fortune and massive increase in tax revenue before we could properly fund every desirable aspect of society.

Not that this deters everyone.  Like Corbyn who said “I am strongly wedded to the principle of universalism in benefits.” there are some on the left supporting this policy because they see it as a Trojan horse, that by introducing universality it will subsequently expand to every benefit, others prefer class warfare and see this as the first step in destroying the current capitalist system. To be honest, I’m not convinced of either the economics or the practicalities of a unilateral economic revolution, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Staying on the specifics of universal free school meals, it may surprise people, but I would actually love to see all schools providing high quality freshly crafted, healthy and nutritional lunches to every single child. I would like to see more that 50p spent on ingredients, bigger portion sizes, halls big enough so pupils don’t have to rush, nice crockery and cutlery. However, I know that comes with a cost, I know that spending £10 billion on my personal school food plan would have a knock on effect somewhere else, something else would have to give. Even if we ended the Tory austerity drive there are schools that need urgent maintenance, teacher recruitment needs addressing, there is asbestos to remove, mental health councillors to employ, Holiday hunger, new schools to be built,  shorter hours, breakfasts, Libraries, books, TAs, CPD ….. a whole long long expensive list of things that need sorting.

They all need sorting and yet Corbyn determined not to come up with a plan to sort any of them. Instead he comes up with a discredited plan that funds feeding children regardless of their need.
Contrary to the lefts “we can have it all view”,  Labour haven’t come up with a magic money tree.  Despite the pretence that his policy would benefit “all children”, this policy only feeds Key Stage 2. In Corbyns world all the arguments about hungry children needing food seem to dissipate in to the ether when children start secondary school.

The reality has struck and Jeremy has been forced to prioritise, been forced to compromise in his ambition because for one of the first times, he is coming up against the practicalities of real world politics.

Once you accept that Corbyn is actively rationing the support he is giving to children, the question is why. Why despite the all evidence, did the Labour party make universal free school meals for primary aged children its top spending priority?


Secondly on stigma, As soon as you chip away at the supporters arguments, pointing out the lack of evidence around their claims of health benefits, or highlight the fact means testing will continue,  there is almost a knee jerk response of “what about the stigma on all those FSM children”.  For a section of the left, his appears to have become a driver for the policy, its like some nascent Munchausen By Proxy has overtaken them.

I am not sure how many of these people have been into a Junior school recently, but as any teacher will tell you, schools go to great lengths to ensure FSM children are not identified or singled out. Allegorical tales of abuse from umpteen years ago are simply not relevant with today’s cashless offices. Not only are people wrong about FSM stigma in schools, If anything they are actually driving it and making it worse.

There is clearly a perception amongst a section of society that children are being picked on specifically because they receive free school meals. I blogged on this a few years ago, pointing out the disparities and how things are different but try as you might I can’t persuade them otherwise.

This really becomes a serious problem when this perception, this fake news, takes hold and becomes the story and gains momentum in the media.

It is hard enough to get people to sign up for free school meals as it is, but by yelling incessantly about the illusory stigma endured by primary children on FSM, these people are in real danger of putting people off applying.

Primary schools know too well that its already a struggle to sign parents up thanks to UIFSM , a mass of left wingers screaming about the horrors can and will make things worse. They are putting vulnerable people off FSM and it makes me actually quite cross.

If people have a new found mission in life to end the stigmatisation of children on free school meals, then firstly they need to shut up about it and secondly, they should be prioritising secondary schools, which is where any stigma is happening (and even there, I don’t believe it is a major issue).


I will take the final two points, together because clearly anyone who disagrees with the left wing of the Labour party is deserving of all the nastiness the keyboard warriors can spew.

Not only have I consistently questioned the benefits of universal free school meals, I have brought the government to account on its failings and regularly suggested alternatives, many of which are now mainstream in education circles. This isn’t new to me.

I genuinely struggle with the basic justification that Labour is citing for the policy, namely that it “would benefit the educational attainment and health of all children”. The evidence that a universal meals policy would, on its own, improve attainment, is questionable; the evidence that it would improve health is totally non-existent.

But here’s the thing, when you have a leader claiming his policy will improve health, that it will fight obesity, when there is incontrovertible evidence that in his own constituency, the policy is seeing an increase in obesity, you have to question the mans decision making.

That his followers choose to strike out so violently at people who put forward a different and almost certainly more informed view, should be worrying for the future of the Labour party.  Just like Nick Cleggs universal Infant FSM policy, this is a waste of time and money.  I had hoped Labour would see sense, would look at the evidence, but it seems to have fallen into the same shallow PR driven, ill thought out policy chasm the Lib Dems are still trying to recover from.

Corbyn is no messiah, he’s a politician who makes bad judgment calls just to try and gain good PR…. Whisper it quietly, Ken and Hitler are no longer news, tax the rich, feed the rich is now the story.



Finally one word for those Teachers and Governors who profess support for the policy. There is absolutely nothing to stop you from putting the policy into your own school, you could use GAG if you saw it as important. But you won’t put your money where your mouth is, because you have other priorities. If you can’t justify imposing UFSM in your own setting, how on earth can you argue it should apply to everyone else?


Universal FSM and obesity, the evidence 


Last weekend, the MailTelegraph and Independent all published stories about free school meals making children fatter, given 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.