My response to the Guardian article on FSM

I was fascinated by Henry Dimblebys article in the guardian, as someone who has blogged on this issue, i suppose it should come as no surprise that there is an increase in the rhetoric and flag waving on this policy at this time.

I really don’t want this to seem like a rant against one man, i have absolutely no doubt about Henrys good intentions and i know he has put in lots of work. When he reads this i hope he understands that i am not being critical of the man, but i am concerned with the policy for which he is the current totem.

i still feel that those involved in promoting the policy hugely underestimate the difficulties over the practicalities involved. Once again there seems to be a desire to gloss over the genuine issues with kitchens and halls that face many schools.
The initial infrastructure costs didn’t get a mention in the SFP and he shies away from them still. Unless infrastructure issues are addressed, implementing the policy will be impossible. Sharing best practice will clearly help lots of schools, but telling a school to stagger lunchtimes, when it has no kitchen or space for a kitchen, will not solve anything.

To its credit, Dimblebys school food plan suggested a gradual roll out to all primaries, starting in areas of deprivation. in my opinion an eminently sensible recommendation if you are going to pursue universal FSM, equally sensible was the clear statement ‘Increasing take-up is not something that can be done from the top-down” which is why i dont understand why supporters are suggesting Cleggs state decreed FSM for infants policy was recommended by the school food plan, it simply wasnt. There really should be a distinct separation of the school food plan and the policy. We need to be clear, the politics involved with rolling this out to all infants mark a huge change in emphasis and bring huge practical challenges that wouldn’t exist if there had been the gradual roll out.

i have previously blogged about the practicalities and shouldn’t need to reiterate them here, suffice to say 8 months and £150 million will not solve the problems, nor will telling school leaders it worked in the trail then throwing out some patronizing sentiment like ‘take heart. It can be done’.

Let me be blunt about this, the trails in Newhan and Durham were not representative of the whole school system, Newham had all their kitchens in place and able to cope, Durham needed some kitchen refits, but all their schools had kitchens and sufficient halls. they had no issues with external contractors who were able to react fairly quickly for this relatively small scale trail. To extrapolate this trail out to 16000 infant schools is frankly ridiculous. There are vast swathes of the country where kitchens have been removed to be replaced by IT suites, it isnt a case of a quick refit (if the equipment were available) but finding space and an expensive and time consuming new build. Government need to know this, need to understand this, they need to be told it is impractical for a significant minority of schools, rather than be whitewashed and allowed to blame schools for the impending failures.

So far i have not really blogged about the finer points on if the whole Universal FSM is a good idea, so to clear up any confusion, my thoughts are; i would love for every child in every school to receive a hot nutritious meal every lunch, i would actually like all children to receive a free breakfast as well, but then again i would like world peace and an end to war. The practicalities of life mean that i must temper my aims, i must look at what works and in these times of austerity, where school budgets are shrinking, I must look at value for money.

There is as HD suggests, evidence that UFSM help improve pupils attainment, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, but there is a huge difference between having benefit and being worth pursuing. the major question of the policies value for money seems to have been missed.

Given the rhetoric, it may surprise people to learn the 2010 FSM trail “raises questions on the overall VFM compared to other initiatives” despite the trail costs being £220 per child PA as opposed to the proposed £400. The benefits in terms of progression were £235 per 1ppt which would now equate to £400. what this means in reality is the UFSM are far more expensive than other interventions. (It is also worth noting the vfm for FSM was much higher for KS2 children at £40-60 per 1ppt, indicating the policy should actually have been aimed at junior schools?) Having read the trail report, i am really not sure it is fair to suggest the policy, which is aimed at infants, will improve their attainment by up to a term, there is no evidence to support this claim.

What the trails actually demonstrated was a 3-4% improvement in attainment overall, but at £400 per pupil (15% of some schools funding for a child) is that an acceptable return? Could that money be spent better on more proven interventions?

What is worse, the support levels of £2 per meal look very much on the tight side (In the 2009 Newham trails, costs were £2.59 per day), even with economies of scale, it is still likely that schools will have to subsidize the costs, meaning schools will be faced with the prospect of cutting other services to pay for this policy. I may be wrong, but It seems governors will be expected to cut other perhaps more successful interventions to fund the policy.

On the basis of the evidence i have seen i cant understand how Henry or the Government can justify a policy that requires money be taken from the budget for schools maintenance, that has little supporting evidence of VFM and no formal educational benefit for significant numbers of pupils.

We all see the politics involved, but people need to be aware that other things will be lost for this, that the practicalities for many are nigh on impossible and that there is a degree of preparing the ground to blame school leaders rather than criticizing the politicians who instigated this impending shambles.

There needs to be a realistic assessment, realistic expectations and that needs to be projected to the public. from what i have seen today, none of that is happening.

‘good preparation and a cool head can overcome all difficulties’ NO THEY CAN’T!

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4 thoughts on “My response to the Guardian article on FSM

  1. Emma says:

    I agree the capitalisation of this programme is the potentially huge issue and will be very difficult to achieve – however will the projected uptake of FSM really happen if schools still churn out poor quality food that ends up in the waste bin? Our school changed caterers 2 yrs ago from the county run empire to a smaller business sourcing locally and have increased uptake from les than 40% to 70% – allowing us to keep lunches at £2 per hd. We have sufficient funds to reinvest into the kitchens – it can be done but needs to be carefully managed and with the right staff trained and in place..

    • Whilst i love your approach and would see it as very positive (trying not to sound patronising there), as i mention briefly in my latest blog, I have concerns over how suppliers will cope with this sudden expansion.
      Unless your local supplier has lots of spare capacity, they will have to invest in new equipment, staff ect.. to meet demand. Unfortunately the policy only has guaranteed funding till after the election. In effect suppliers need to know they can make enough return to pay for their investment within those 2 years, which given the slim margins is a big ask.
      My belief is that businesses will actually offer less coverage, use their existing facilities and concentrate on local profitable schools. This could leave many schools in a difficult position?

      • Emma says:

        We are as a school are looking at what it means but ( and not smugly) believe we are in a strong position as we have had such a good uptake from in particular KS1 to cooked meals that our capitalisation programme will be minimal and have good staff on site who have been in place for 2 yrs. I agree it will be difficult – in the extreme – for schools who have no lunch facilities at present or are dependant upon poor quality caterers – this should have been given a longer term to bed in to allow for real change to happen!

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