Thoughts on a hot school lunch

I have finally bitten the bullet and written my first blog. After resisting the draw of blogging, not least because I already spend far too much time on twitter, the time has come for me to speak out on an issue I actually know something about. I have tried to keep this simple and as such it seems a bit dry and lacks the ebullient prose of some blogs, but the intention in this instance is to pass on my knowledge and concerns rather than entertain.

Some background, I am a governor at a large junior school. Two years ago we managed to tie in a number of funding lines and finance a new hall to provide hot lunches. I was heavily involved in working out the feasibility and practicalities of the project. I had hoped this would be my last involvement with school lunches. Then at this years Lib Dem conference, we had a flagship announcement, it came from the Deputy Prime Minister no less, we learnt that as of September 2014, all infant aged children will receive free hot lunches.

I had to listed to Clegg a couple of times to check what I was hearing, there was no equivocation, no caveats, Free Hot Lunches for all infants from next year.

I knew immediately this policy can’t have been thought through, that without pumping billions of public funds into schools to provide the infrastructure, this was completely unachievable. I posted my usual stream of indignant outrage on twitter and as usual it was ignored, but recently after universal FSM appeared in a couple of blogs, Sam Freedman reignited the issue and as 140 characters is never enough I was “coerced” into blogging about it,

The most basic and fairly fundamental flaw with the policy is that infant schools are not set up to provide hot meals to all their pupils, they simply do not have the facilities necessary. Nick Clegg’s promise of £600 million of funding spread over 2 years, amounts to £2 per child per day. No mention was made of the infrastructure and it would appear no one really understood the practicalities before making this grand policy announcement (a fact confirmed by David Laws inadequate response to Graham Stewarts questioning when he appeared before the education select committee)

The first problem is to do with Kitchens. Although most infant and primary schools have a small kitchen of some sort, not all have the size of kitchen required to prepare food for all the children on roll. Even if it is the most simple reheating pre-prepared food rather than cooking from scratch, schools will need to fit in additional commercial size refrigeration, ovens and steamer units. They will also have to find space for the washing up, storage of crockery, food disposal and bins, they all take up space which schools do not have. It is also worth remembering that each item can cost many thousands of pounds (one commercial oven will cost over £10,000) and that money has to come from somewhere?

Assuming schools have somehow refitted their kitchen, they now need somewhere for the children to sit and eat. At the moment many infant age children eat packed lunches in their class with minimal supervision, but this simply isn’t practical with hot meals and the waste they produce, Schools can’t be wheeling everything necessary for a hot lunch down the corridors and into every classrooms. In my school we had space to built a nice new hall, but this isn’t a solution available to everyone. Even if the land is there, our new build cost over half a million pounds and we still can’t fit every pupil inside. Extrapolate that out to all schools and you will see why I think the policy is questionable.

If a school is lucky enough to have a sizeable kitchen and suitable hall, there are practicalities around the maximum number of children you can feed in any given period of time. The throughput depends on the number of hatches, staff and the number of seats you have in total. It takes 20 to 30 seconds to process and feed each child, these timings are very dependent on the age of the children and the food being served (never schedule gravy and custard on the same day) so a good rule of thumb is; with a fair wind and practice its possible to feed 100 children in just over an hour, you can double this with another serving hatch (or £5k of mobile server) but beyond that, the amount of seating starts becoming important as children need time to actually sit and eat their food. For this reason providing hot meals for everyone will necessitate most schools extending existing lunch hours, splitting lunch sessions and changing the length of he school day to ensure schools continue to provide the necessary hours. it is also worth remembering there will be a consultation period for schools wanting to extend their hours, they need to give notice to parents, staff, bus providers, other schools ect… planning for this needs to be well under way to be ready for September.

There are a few “lesser” issues which schools will need to address
Tables and chairs, crockery and cutlery, who will fund these and where will you store them all?
Setting up the tables and cleaning up takes the hall out of service for a large chunk of the day and will impact on the halls use.
Where will you put the bins? Food waste must be separated out, removed and stored somewhere safe before disposal. One word…… rats?
Extra staff will be needed especially as split shifts will mean staff supervising out on playground as well as inside where the children eat, also contracts for support staff may need to change especially if the school day is extended.
Lunchtime extra curricular activities will become much more difficult to organise.
In Primary schools hot meals for juniors will be affected, some schools may have to prioritise infants and exclude juniors.

A significant and not unrelated issue will be the policies impact on a schools pupil premium, why should people bother to register for FSM when everyone gets them?

It is clear there are significant extra costs associated with this policy, extensive infrastructure is required in order to meet its promises, Even if the government were to commit to spending billions on the infrastructure, (which it won’t) it is physically impossible to have all the buildings ready for September. My fear is, having set out its stall, the government will carry on regardless and we are likely to end up with some bodged half cock solution.

My prediction is that many infants will end up with a cheap mass produced packed lunch which they will eat in class. The quality will be poor and many infant aged children won’t eat them. Parents will look at the food (ever tried a school packed lunch?) and decide they would prefer to continue sending in good quality food they know their children will eat. As an aside, the main players in food provision for schools all understand these issues, but they are reluctant to raise any problems because they are eyeing up the profit on £600 million worth of mini infant sized portions.

The sad thing is, for a fraction of the cost, schools could set up their own breakfast clubs. They would be far more effective, meet a genuine need and give children a boost before the start of the school day. It would be popular with teachers and working parents alike and address many of the issues raised in support of the free lunch policy.

One final thought, if anyone gets the chance to question a DfE minister or Lib Dem MP, ask them about the wisdom of announcing a completely uncosted key note policy, one they clearly haven’t thought through or understood the implications or the multi billion point black hole in finances they would create trying to implement it. Suggest that they save face, frame it as “responding to schools concerns” and fund breakfast clubs instead, but please, do it quickly.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on a hot school lunch

  1. Pingback: Primary Bloggers rise up | Ramblings of a Teacher

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