Thoughts on the DfE letter to heads

I am going to be blunt, the recent missive to infant head teachers on universal free school meals rather reminds me of a used car salesman promoting a Ferrari, knowing he will be delivering a daewoo matiz.

It is fairly clear the letter contains very little that is new, in fact it very much has the feel of Henry Dimblebys article in the last weeks Guardian, so rather than waste everyone’s time I would point you to my previous blog response, which highlights the lack of evidence for an infant FSM policy and questions its impact and value for money.

Despite my reservations on the letter, I would encourage Heads to take at least one piece of advice and read the School Food Plan, if for no other reason than it does contain some good guidance on improving lunch provision. But if you are looking to find the actual FSM for infants policy being recommended, you will be sorely disappointed, which is a major bug bear as we are repeatedly given the impression that the two are similar. The melding of plan and policy may help with the politics, but in practice it is the cause of so many of the problems.

The top down, mass roll out will create huge practical difficulties for many, it will be massively expensive to implement and some will find it an impossibly short timetable.  All these details were ignored in the SFP, probably because their report suggested a phased roll out and made no concession for initial capital costs or considered the consequences of a big bang launch.

We seem to be seeing the very worst of politics at play, a party taking a decent report and hanging a half-baked electioneering policy on the back of it. We have ministers pretending the policy and the plan are one in the same. Throw in some misdirection, some blatant lies, a bit of patronisation and you just about reach the level of this letter.

What is striking is how gullible ministers think infant heads must be!

Anyone who follows education news will know that far from consensus within the coalition there has been open political warfare, the fact that they feel the need to inform people of their agreement smacks of people who doth protest too much.

In scenes reminiscent of Malcom Tucker at his best, we have witnessed increasingly vitriolic spin on the Clegg/Gove relationship, all played out in public; A source close to Mr Clegg complaining that he was forced to deal with ‘problems’ which had been ‘bumped up’ from Mr Gove’s office on an ‘almost daily basis’ and “This latest quarrel reflects Nick’s frustration with Gove and his feeling that he is out of control.”

Whilst Mr Gove and his acolytes regard the UFSM policy as an ill-thought-out ‘ambush’ and demonstrate how close the two are with supportive statements like; ‘Clegg is lying again‘  “Clegg’s only interest seems to be diverting money away from important areas such as creating new school places and instead lavishing tens of millions on back-of-a-fag-packet schemes,” It sounds just the kind of argument infant heads are well used to hearing and dealing with on a daily basis.

What is remarkable is that sensible well educated head teachers are being asked believe, thanks to joint authorship of a letter, there is complete political harmony on this policy. I am sure head teachers are all capable of making up their own minds on the sincerity of the consensus.

One aspect in the letter that is new and significant, relates to the payment to schools, the figure of £2.30 is the 20011-12 mean cost of production in England, meaning the issue of schools and LAs having to subsidise this policy up to the actual costs a very real one and will take some thinking about. It seems there is an expectation by politicians that if costs exceed the £2.30 other budgets should be used to support the policy, though I doubt any politician would be able to say exactly what schools should cut.

There will also be issues about the calculation and timing of the payments. Most suppliers charge in advance for the number of meals they supply. However under the scheme, schools will be paid in arrears for the number of meals taken. This not only impacts on cash flow, but could have serious ramifications if children order then don’t have the meals. Schools could be left hugely out of pocket if their ordering isn’t exact or there is an unexpected school closure. (Think being the organiser of Christmas office party, the venue want cash up front in case some people don’t turn up but you are only allowed to collect the money off the people who sit down to eat the meal?)

All this assuming you can find a supplier?

A lack of capacity is looking increasingly likely to impact on schools, as people are reluctant to invest in a business where the margins are less than 10% (many far less) where you need a huge initial capital investment and your contract has no guarantees, other than the overarching policy is funded for just two years? You have transport costs, staffing costs, rent, food and disposal costs, then some days on children’s whim, you might sell no food? We may actually see external suppliers contracting their business as they consolidate on their local, more profitable schools using their existing capacity. Market forces, high set up costs and a fixed price may well see schools unable to find a suitable provider.

All this harks back to the initial reasoning behind my blog, the practicalities of the policy, the aspect controlled solely by the politicians who just don’t seem to grasp the consequences of their actions.

Ministers already appear to be absolving themselves from responsibility insisting that £150 million is adequate and implying any failings are down to uncooperative heads and irresponsible local authorities. That £150million can provide the infrastructure has been challenged by local authorities, but the delusion continues. It will be interesting to see how the figure was calculated and the advice LAs gave on the figures and the allocation method.  What is clear is that other capital budgets will be raided to fund this policy because £150m is not enough.

Some final quick points, it was striking that there was no letter to governors, just an instruction for heads to pass on the letter to the chair (who is clearly not that important) secondly, in my book, a long term policy commitment is one that is funded for longer than two years, this is a short term policy funded till just past the next election with no guarantees after that. Finally there seems to be a pseudo justification for the policy in that it is ok to ignore the evidence and start with infants on the basis that minister’s hint they would like to see the policy extended to all juniors at some point in the future. Whilst it would be nice to believe that politicians stick by their best intentions,, I have 4 words for those who believe the wishful thinking from politicians, Nick Clegg Tuition Fees!

The letter states ‘with commitment on all sides and good planning, none of these challenges are insurmountable’ sadly when we look at the political leadership, don’t seem to have that commitment and we certainly haven’t seen evidence of any good planning. This remains a policy that will suck up huge amounts of head teachers time when they are already burdened with implementing any number of major reforms; a new curriculum, new ofsted regulations, new pay rules, new appraisal systems etc. etc. ect….. This is little more than electioneering, an attempt to win family votes for the lib dems and as a consequence heads must spend the next 6 months learning to be catering managers (some people will do very well training them. At a price).

It just saddens me that a government can impose a billion pound policy on schools without considering the practicalities. That it can’t apply the rigor that it expects from others. The continued lack of evidence, the merging of the SFP and the policy along with a head in the sand approach to practicalities, do no one any favours. What really riles is that i think we all know in our hearts that money could be better spent.

A link to the Gove/Laws letter to all Infant heads

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ministerial-letter-about-universal-infant-free-school-meals

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