I have boiled down some of my thoughts and come up with some questions for the politicians supporting Universal Free School Meals.
Like many people, this is a policy that on first viewing appeals to me, in theory, I am “all for” providing all children with a free hot and healthy lunch.
However…… I am not “all for it” at any price, more specifically I could only support such a policy if it provided value for money (VFM) and could be properly implemented.
Sadly evidence of these two, not unreasonable caveats, seem to be missing. (If you have evidence do let me see it)
With regards to the VFM of universal free school meals for infants, I can do no better than refer to the evidence contained in the 2009-11 trail which was used extensively in the school food plan and the latest policy that stemmed from it (though there are major differences, see my previous blog)
The report lists the academic improvement observed for infants receiving UFSM and the differences are decidedly unimpressive; over 2 years the pilot saw a 1.9 percentage point (ppt) increase in the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level in reading at Key Stage 1 and a 2.2ppt increase for maths at Key Stage 1. Overall, this it barely statistically significant! It was also noted that for a large number of children UFSM actually have a negative effect on academic achievement.
Despite the UFSM trails costing £223 per child per year, their value for money was highly questionable, especially when compared to other schemes, it is also worth remembering that the new USFM policy will come in at over £400 a year.
Some interesting quotes from the report the supporters won’t mention
• “There were no significant impacts on Body Mass Index (BMI) “
• “there was no significant effect on the standardised average point score for the population as a whole in area B”
• “the pilot had no impact on pupils who scored in the highest quartile ” the trail actually had a negative impact on the highest performing 25% of children.
In essence, the evidence I have seen indicates this top down policy of offering universal FSM to all infants will make no major difference overall, and it certainly wont offer value for money.
On the practicalities;
I have no doubt there are some schools, maybe many schools who can readily cope with expanding their lunchtime provision. Schools who have capable kitchens, decent sized halls and all the processes in place, Some schools may need a bit of guidance, help to make the most of what they have, but on the whole they can implement the policy. However, there are a significant number of schools who have inadequate kitchens or inadequate halls or both. For these schools providing a hot lunch may not be practical. There are issues with commercial suppliers who may not cope with this sudden expansion, planning, building and timescale issues, problems finding equipment and major concerns over schools not having the money to buy equipment or to top up the funding for the policy. We all know some schools will bumble through, but it is clear some schools will just be unable to provide hot meals to their pupils.
I am fully aware the government allocated £150m in an attempt to address the infrastructure issues, but I believe this is both an afterthought and wholly insufficient. There is no indication this figure was calculated by looking at the actual needs of schools, nor that its allocation will meet those individual schools needs. With kitchen refit costing up to £50k, building new kitchens £150k and halls costing £600k, it is hard to see how far the money will stretch.
Despite all the bluster from supporters I still believe this policy remains impractical for many schools.
Over the next few weeks we will see this policy being promoted by its exponents, much of it will be spurious, just like David Laws who recently said: “Free school meals have multiple benefits – children concentrate more in school when they get a proper, healthy lunch”
Which is interesting coming from a DfE minister whose own report into UFSM said “There was no clear evidence that the pilots improved children’s behavior or concentration”
So when you hear ministers lauding the policy, there are some challenging questions you should be asking.
• Given the DfE policy of “giving school leaders more control over how they spend their budget”, why are infant schools leaders not the best placed people to spend these considerable sums of money?
• What evidence do you have that targeting infants with this £750 million policy offers value for money?
• If the actual cost of hot lunches exceeds the financial support offered under the scheme, is the expectation that schools should withdraw funds from other areas to subsidise the FSM provision?
• How did you calculate there is exactly £150m of shortfall in school infrastructure, how do you know if that amount is enough?
• Given the £150 million infrastructure fund is being allocated to LAs on the basis of head counts rather than to schools based on need, How do you know that this money will get through to individual schools in need?
• Some schools will be unable to provide hot lunches, eg if they don’t have space to build or they miss out on the funding, Will they be punished by Ofsted?
• How will Ofsted enforce this policy, given the policy only runs for 2 years and many schools won’t be inspected in that time?
• Politicians are making great play of the £400+ savings for parents, if a school is unable to provide a hot meal, will parents receive the money direct or will some unlucky parents simply lose out on these promised savings?
• If a school is unable to provide the hot lunches, what will happen to the funds? Will schools still receive the funds to spend in alternative ways?
• How does the government plan to measure this policies success or lack of it?
• How soon will the government be publishing take up figures of new hot meals?
I would love to hear some answers. I suspect I won’t get many.