After all the adulation for my first blog (a couple of favourites and a few retweets) and given Free school meals are back in the news, I feel obliged to pen a follow up on the same subject, the difficult second blog.
If only it were that simple!
Now I could repeat the points from my previous blog, reiterate that without spending huge amounts on infrastructure, the policy is simply not achievable, but you may as well just read it again. Needless to say, I don’t think £150 million will cut the mustard, especially when you consider one new school hall & kitchen can cost upwards of £500,000. My suspicion is that this is just a speculative figure agreed with the treasury rather than a realistic estimate of actual costs needed to implement the policy.
On this basis I would like to concentrate on some of the other issues surrounding this impending fiasco.
Firstly I think it is worth noting that the word “Hot” seems to have disappeared from ministers vocabulary. In September, Cleggs office announced “The government will fund schools in England to provide every child in reception, year 1 and year 2 with a hot, nutritious meal at lunch time” The latest press release dispenses with “hot” and “lunch” preferring “a healthy meal in the middle of the day” which in practice will mean an apple and a cheap sandwich eaten in class. This rowing back is something to watch out for as the whole justification for the policy is based on a hot lunch. If “hot” goes, so does the policy justification.
Secondly I wonder what imperative will be placed on schools to actually apply the policy. This opens up a whole raft of questions around enforcement; what happens to schools who don’t provide hot meals? How will this be checked? How will it be regulated? Who is going to regulate? What are the consequences? Will you punish LAs or schools? Will schools who miss out on necessary funding be exempt? What happens to any regulations when all the funding runs out after the election? Clearly this is yet another major aspect that the office of the DPM haven’t thought through (Add in the inevitable shambles around distributing the money, finding supplies ect.) But this will lead to perhaps the most politically sensitive question, which should arise in September when someone audits the numbers receiving FSM, will responsibility for the success or failure of this policy fall on Michael Goves DfE?
Thirdly is the unseemly row over which budget the FSM funding will come from. I have little time for the public name calling going on between Gove and Clegg. but what should not be missed, is that money from the schools maintenance budget is being used to fund this policy. The benefit of the mudslinging is that it opened up a window on the DfE, it appears they deliberately underspent on essential repairs so they could divert £157m into building free schools. Neither party comes out of this well, both seem happy to condemn some children to learn in “falling down” schools, just so their own expensive politically motivated policy can receive funding.
The final thing, and this annoys me, this really annoys me, is that before launching the flagship policy no one considered the need for new infrastructure. I find it hard to contain my contempt for ministers who couldn’t even think to check if schools had the cooking facilities needed. What on earth does it tell us about the competence of Clegg, Laws and all their staff? Are they really so out of touch with the real world, can they really know so little about schools, David Laws is a minister in the DfE for goodness sake. It’s not often I agree with Micheal Gove but he is right to suggest it was political showmanship designed to win Clegg votes at the election (and Gove is a man who knows all about political showboating).