Free school meals, a political football that is gradually deflating

For a while now I’ve been putting some thought into politics behind the universal preschool meals project, i am rushing this blog out, so apologies if it looks a bit rough

Hopefully by looking at the background and the way the policy was developed will provide an insight into how it is being managed at the moment and more importantly the way forward. The School Food Plan was commissioned by Michael Gove and written by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. It builds on the work done by Jamie Oliver and relies heavily the 2009-11 universal free school meals trial in Newham and Durham for its evidence base, I have a number of issues. but on the whole it is a very good report. It made a number recommendations on food policy and warned against any top down implementation, but as far as this blog is concerned, it made one key recommendation; that universal free school meals be gradually introduced in primary schools, starting with the most deprived areas.

Moving on to September 2013, the party conference season. remembering that the parties are moving onto an election footing and looking at policies that would appeal to their core voters, we see the 2 governing parties taking part in what is little more that £1.2 billion of horse trading. The Conservative party had a long held desire to resurrect the married couples tax allowance, a policy that reinforced small c conservative values and appealed to their core supporters, the problem being it wasn’t in the coalition agreement and appeared to be against the Lib Dem fundamentally liberal ideals. However, in the run up to the party conferences politics won out, a deal was struck whereby the lib dems would withdraw their principled objections and allow the conservatives to spend £600m on the tax break in exchange for an equal sum to spend on the Lib Dems chosen policy.

On the eve of conference and with seemingly little consultation Nick Clegg announced that his flagship policy this year would be all infant aged child in England will receive a free hot school lunch. I suspect this came as a shock not only to the department of education but the authors of the original school plan. it certainly took those of us with an interest in school meals by surprise.

Nick Clegg justified the policy in two ways, firstly that UFSM would boost attainment and secondly that there would be a £400 cost saving to the families of infant aged children.

For those of us who studied the key FSM evidence, this all this looked decidedly shaky. Whilst there was some evidence that FSM improved attainment it was anything but spectacular and the greatest impact was actually found in KS2 not in infants. What was also worth noting is that UFSM are not particularly cost effective compared to other interventions. As the trail report showed, VFM for the policy was low compared to other interventions (section 6.3 table 6.6 of the report if you are interested) and there was no comparative evidence to rate it above other far cheaper interventions like breakfast clubs or Change4Life schemes. Knowing the evidence didn’t support the policy on solely improving attainment, it seems we are left with a policy based primarily on saving parents £400 a year, or what many commentators would call “a predilection bribe”.

Let me be clear about this, there is no evidence that targeting UFSM at Infants brings significant academic improvement or that it offers Value for money compared to other interventions.

It would appear the benefits of targeting all infants rather than the recommended gradual roll out to primaries in deprived areas are all political, it sounds an attractive policy, it sounds like it should help, universality makes it much easier to explain, easier to sell, and i am sure it appeals to many of the lib Dems target audience, but it fundamentally changes the plan and its chances of success. All this puts the UFSM supporters in an extremely difficult position. For the first time, they had the opportunity to introduce universal meals and there was political support for the policy, even if it wasnt exactly what had been recommended. There appears to be a general feeling that this flawed policy is better than nothing and with luck and professionalism from heads, schools would be able to bluster on through any issues regardless. I have some sympathy for their position, if you believe it works, then push for the policy as much as you can, unfortunately the supporters dont have a strong evidence base to take everyone along with them.

Sadly the issues dont stop there, It was gradually becoming clear that there would be major infrastructure costs required to implement the policy, something that appears to be missed in the SFP (quite possibly because trial areas were already fairly well resourced for the provision, possibly because the authors didn’t think the recommendations would be acted on) Whatever the reasoning, something had to be done about the huge swathes of the country that had inadequate kitchens, inadequate halls or both.

the realization of this major hurdle appears to have brought on some sort of panic within our education department, we got to see some major and public political infighting between Clegg and Gove (ably supported by @Toryeducation) It was announced that £150 million will be found to fund the infrastructure required for the implementation of the policy. i found myself in the unusual position of being on the same side of the argument as Toryed, when he pointed out that the £80m raid on the schools maintenance budget, would lead to children continuing in leaking classrooms so that the children of wealthy people could have a free lunch. (i would have added that FSM makes no difference to the health or learning or the top quartile)

Once the side show of two ministers acting like 7 yr olds died down, the questions still remained, £150 million sounds a lot of money, but with a new dining hall costing upwards of £600k, a new build kitchen £150k and a kitchen refit £45k, the money wont stretch too far. It is hard to see how the figure of £150m was calculated, without knowing on a school by school basis, how can the government know how much is actually required? The suspicion that it was guesswork was confirmed when the money was allocated to LAs based on pupil numbers rather than individual school needs (Newham who already provide UFSM will receive £1.2m)

So we will be left with many schools unable to provide the hot meals originally promised by Clegg , i say originally, because the words ‘all infants’ had been subtly dropped in preference for ‘the majority of infants’ (rather less clhallanging given 43% already have hot lunches). Clegg was facing the potentially embarrassing situation that schools could just turn round and say ‘we cant do this’, there was no actual law to force schools to implement this policy. Again we saw what looks like yet another panic move; Ofsted was to be used to ensure the policy was implemented. Ofsted, the bluntest most inappropriate tool available was to be used to punish schools who didnt toe the line, assuming that is, they are due an inspection within the two year life of the policy.

This brings us fairly up to date, it appears the official documentation is on its way to schools, we will soon find out exactly what is expected, but i doubt very much we will get too much detail of how much schools are going to receive or details of how to implement anything, There is a genuine fear that even if the meals can be provided, they will need to be additionally subsidized by schools, shifting resources from other (possibly better) interventions.

The ridiculous thing is that come September, UFSM supporters will be out there proclaiming the policy highlighting the £400 savings to families, many of whom wont notice. The people who will be speaking loudest, the ones who will be disillusioned and unhappy will be the ones who don’t get the hot meal, parents at schools who missed out on funding, who dont have facilities. It will be those parents having their noses rubbed by the fact that are losing out. At that point parents will rightly ask what happened, what happened to their £400? will they get a cheque?

Inevitably we have seen some preparation of the ground, shifting of blame onto schools, typical denial and deflection that seems to permeate through politics, there is increased pressure on schools and critics of the policy stop bleating and get on with it, it seems supporters are continuing to ignore genuine issues that will impact many many schools.

The major problem that will face clegg is that only 18% of people consider politicians trustworthy, the figure is 86% for teachers.

There is still time to change course, still time to consider if schools themselves should be allowed to decide how to spend these vast sums, encourage the FSM policy by all means, but dont have it as the only way forward. A 5 form entry school receiving £2 per lunch will get over £200,000, I suspect heads could do a lot of positive intervention with that amount. If a school has to subsidize from £2 to £2.50, it will be forced to find savings of £42000.

Whilst i find UFSM appealing, I believe it is wrong that in these times of austerity, we are spending over £750 million on an educational intervention that does not offer value for money, one that has absolutely no benefit for significant numbers of children and yet we threaten schools with being downgraded if they dont comply. Ministers talk of Business like governance, yet seemingly expects them to drop interventions that offer real value for money to support what is essentially an attempt to buy votes.

This is a dogs dinner that deviates from the original idea, it is poorly thought through, poorly implemented and should be stopped in its tracks right now.

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3 thoughts on “Free school meals, a political football that is gradually deflating

  1. Steve Higgins says:

    My main worry is the impact on Pupil Premium allocations to schools based on uptake of FSM. Why would parents register for a free school meal if their child is already going to get one? The experience in Newham (anecdotally at least) suggests that schools, particularly primary schools, and particularly those in disadvantaged areas will lose out as it will be harder to get disadvantaged families to sign up for FSM. This will decrease the funding schools should actually be receiving.

    • I agree it is an issue, there is clearly less incentive to sign up, if you will get the meals anyway.
      I believe the DfE are trying to simplify the process, but at the end of the day their line is its down to schools to encourage parents to sign up.
      I have heard of schools asking all parents for details of all their benefits, so they can help those who are eligible. Whilst i can see the benefit of this approach, i remain slightly uncomfortable with it.
      Ultimately it will be down to schools to work even harder to pick up the PP.

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