The latest instalment of my blog focuses on the £17 million pound tendering process opened by the DfE before Christmas. This money is specifically to “establish service contracts to implement the School Food Plan”
There are three problems with this
Firstly the governments use of the SFP as a driver of this policy is inappropriate,
Secondly that the SFP itself is flawed,
And thirdly that the DfE are spending quite so much on promotion.
Perhaps it is worth starting with a quick history lesson for those who dont know about the Schools Food Plan.
After Jamie Oliver highlighted the poor state of school dinners, there was pressure on government to do something, Tony Blair helped set up the charity School Food Trust (now renamed the Children’s Food Trust) to advise schools and develop food policy. In 2010, the new coalition government came in and made a number of changes to school food policy, many of which were publicly criticised by Oliver.
Still under pressure to act, Michael Gove commissioned a new report. To many peoples surprise the publicly funded School Food Plan (SFP) was to be written by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, two restaurateurs with no prior history or involvement with school meals, but with the undoubted advantage of sharing a holiday in Marrakech with Sarah Vine and her husband Michael Gove.
The plan was launched in July this year, then in September, out of the blue and with great fanfare, Nick Clegg announced to the Lib Dem conference the years flagship policy would be to provide every infant school child a Free Hot lunch.
He repeatedly linked the policy to the recommendations within SFP and the £17m spend is specifically to “implement the SFP” tying the report and policy together.
So to reiterate Clegg was proposing a top down policy whereby every reception, Yr 1 and Yr2 child was to be offered a free hot school lunch. Unfortunately for Clegg some of us who had read the SFP, noticed that at no point did the SFP suggest this action, this is the closest it gets
“We have also recommended that free school meals should be extended to all primary school children, starting with the most deprived areas. “
You may note this differs from the stated policy? Targeting deprived areas, phased implementation, all primary aged children, fundamental and practical differences.
Just to be clear, at no point does the plan suggest providing universal free school meals to infants, yet the DfE bizarrely committed £17 million into “implementing the School Food Plan” whilst instigating a policy that is fundamentally different.
The way the policy is being driven by politicians is also a worry, to its credit, the SFP repeatedly and sensibly argues that “Increasing take-up is not something that can be done from the top-down” and Dimbelby himself was quoted as saying “the point of the whole plan which is that it is the duty of the head teacher to decide what they want to do about school food. Good school food – in fact good school food – is not created by state decree.” yet this is exactly what is being attempted by Clegg, a top down, state decreed policy.
It is also worth noting that the decision to abandon ” hot meals for all” for the more achievable “the majority of children will receive a hot meal” also appears to contradict the whole basis of plan. Throughout the SFP, the meals they refer to are HOT meals, the benefits derived are all from HOT meals, SFP make no claims on a school packed lunch being of benefit, yet with this policy, it is clear a significant minority will end up with just that, a sandwich and an apple eaten in class.
I am no politician, so I remain confused as to how the government can base a policy on a report that has entirely different recommendations?
My second concern is with the the plan itself
Whilst there are some great points made in the SFP, it obviously builds on the work done by Oliver and the 2010 free school meals pilots, I can’t get over the fact a report into school meals can gloss over the lack of infrastructure to the point it didnt even merit a mention. They also seem to underestimate the issues relating to the role of the private sector as well as having a fairly cavalier attitude to schools shifting funding to meals.
I have no interest in going though the report picking up on every single point I disagree with, not least because it does make some interesting and positive contributions. I’m just amazed that none of the people involved considered the impact of school facilities or more importantly, the lack of them, I can’t be the only person to realise that many schools don’t have the necessary infrastructure to provide universal hot meals? Sharing best practice, which to my mind is the most valuable aspect of the report, does not overcome the fundamental issues with space and equipment faced by many schools.
The report also seems to overplay the cost savings created by the economies of scale. Minor inflationary pressures can have major impact on the figures the report is reliant on, making the whole policy unsustainable. I also have concerns that they assume the private sector will step up, as the investment in equipment is significant, the margins are very tight, the funding uncertain ( I have kept this brief as I will be blogging on this soon)
I suppose it’s to be expected from a report on school food, that it plays up the benefits of school food, but there seems to be a naive expectation that schools should be prioritised food above every other method of improving attainment. Sadly the realities of tightening budgets mean that for many schools the priorities are fixing leaking roofs, maintaining buildings and finding qualified teachers. It is unrealistic to expect schools to top up and subsidise universal FSM, which seems to be the ultimate solution if the figures don’t add up.
This is not to suggest school leaders wouldn’t like to provide universal free school meals, but most would like world peace and an end to war, sadly it is all about priorities. Governors will have to decide if spending school funds on subsidising wealthy childrens lunch is in the best interests of the school, I suspect for many it may not be their first choice.
My final point is concerned with how much money being spent promoting all this. As I mentioned above £17 million is being pumped into promoting the SFP, effectively PR for the Policy.
This just seems incredible amount of money to spend on promoting a plan which is actually really available for school leaders to read. There are also a number of charities like the aforementioned children’s food trust who provide almost all the information contained within the SFP and looking at the site costs nothing.
We really must question the benefits of transferring £17 million to organisations outside the education sector to promote this plan. (The make up of the winners will be very interesting, I look forward to seeing who will be profiting from all this)
To put it into context, the £17 million penciled in for PR could provide the 17,000 primary schools in England with £1000 each to set up a breakfast club!
Just think about that, £1000.00 to each school……… Now think about the priorities at play in all this?
My next blog will be on the private sectors role in all this, or it might be on the politics at play. Either way there is more to come on this FSM fiasco.