Will Clegg punish schools? Latest FSM farce

Whilst preparing my next blog on Free School Meals, I stumbled across some new information on an aspect I was going to include in my penultimate section of the current blog stream, (major outstanding issues with FSM policy). I feel it is such an important development I am slipping it in on its own, ahead of the promised instalment on the school food plan.

I have always thought one of the major stumbling blocks for this increasingly discredited policy would be how to enforce it, how to ensure it is rolled out to individual autonomous schools.

In a simplistic world, one where everything smells of Lib Dem yellow roses, where schools all have large halls, new kitchens and no budgetary pressures, you could just spend a few million on PR, bung local authorities the odd million, and assume every child will receive a hot meal every lunch time.

Sadly I am not a politician, nor do I stand to benefit financially from the policy, so I am a little more realistic about the policy, a tad more sceptical, you might say.

I had already prepared a paragraph about the possible consequences if a school couldn’t provide the hot meals, so I will include it here unedited;

There will be major issues ensuring this policy is implemented. Clegg can tell his conference that every child will receive hot meal (or a sandwich), but the actual FSM will be delivered by individual schools. If the school doesn’t have the necessary facilities, lacks space or doesn’t receive funding, if governors don’t feel they should subsidise meals for families who can afford lunches, then what consequences can Clegg impose. Who will police it, who will check, what will they check and what will be the consequences. He can’t seriously expect DfE to punish schools for the basic failure of his policy.

A week after writing that I find out via the school food trust site that the government are proposing using Ofsted to police this policy.

“Ofsted will guide inspectors to consider the behaviour and culture in school dining rooms and to look at how schools promote healthy lifestyles. Progress on take up of school meals, the number of schools meeting standards, morale of the workforce, the number of schools with food awards and children’s cooking skills will also be monitored by the Department for Education”

This begs lots of questions, not least; Is this really what Ofsted are there for?

Are they expecting Ofsted to down grade a school because it doesn’t play Cleggs political games with children’s education?
Do they still not realise that some schools don’t have a dining room?
In many areas a £2 a child gov subsidy is not enough to provide a hot meal, are they expecting the school to subsidise infants hot meals from its budget or face the consequences?
Many schools do not have the facilities and as I have stated, the £150 million is totally inadequate, will Ofsted punish a school if it hasn’t got facilities?
What training and qualifications will Ofsted inspectors have? (Will be interesting to see who is paid to provide any training) what will be their expectations, will they consider sandwiches eaten in class a meal?
The funding for this policy is only in place for 2 years, this makes investing in expensive catering equipment untenable for schools and contractors alike, will they look for schools to prioritise infant lunches over other spending?
Contractors may not be able to meet the required numbers without significant investment, will schools be held liable for their failings?
Given the policy comes in to force in September and there is no guidance or funding for schools will they be punished for a failure to negotiate new contracts in time?

I could go on and on asking obvious questions and listing some well worn arguments as to why the policy is appallingly poor and how it would be totally inappropriate to punish schools for policy failings outside their control, but let me give you this one last point to highlight just how panicky and badly thought through this proposal is.

The funding for this policy is only in place for 2 years, this means that the guidance for inspectors can only be in place for 2 years, schools who have just been inspected or are outstanding will not receive a visit from Ofsted or their accompanying Michelin inspectors within that timeframe.

Depending on their point of the Ofsted cycle, some schools will be punished, others will be able to ignore the policy and do what they consider best for the school.

Mr Clegg better be sure that punishing schools for his policy failure is what he wants, because that is what he will get!

In my next blog, I will be questioning the SFP before highlighting some outstanding issues, then so as to avoid the suggestion that I am just being negative, I will finish this series of blogs with my suggestions

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