I know the official letter relating to Universal Free School Meals only went out a fortnight ago and there are still many issues still to be clarified, but schools should be in discussions with governors, LA, suppliers and the SLT.
Here is my top ten things to consider
1 Managing expectations
Thanks to Nick Clegg, most people will think UFSM policy means a free hot lunch for every pupil. In many cases it will not! Certainly not initially, so unless you are confident your school can provide a hot meal to all your children from day one, start warming parents up to the realities that will face them in September.
2 Planning your numbers
Don’t assume every child will take up the offer of a FSM. There will be huge fluctuations in take up for UFSM. Given the inevitable publicity, I would expect an initial surge, possibly 100%, but this will gradually settle down as children decide they don’t like what’s on offer or choose not to have certain options. Predicting who will eat what is an art, made all the more difficult by the fact the meals are now free so parents won’t worry about cancelling. This becomes a significant Issue as schools only get paid for the meals taken, not those requested, so it is likely there will be shortfalls when children don’t eat, which leads me on to….
3 Cash flow
Many schools will be paying in advance for the meals they order, but the scheme will only pay for the meals taken, in arrears, once the numbers are filed and checked. This creates a lag between paying suppliers and receiving the funds from DfE and it could well become an issue. Schools may need to check their overdraft facilities and tighten up their ordering process. Despite what some people say, my understanding is that the money will come via the LA for maintained schools, adding more delays to the process.
4 Capital costs
As I have said all along, £150 million might sound a lot, but in terms of school buildings it is a drop in the ocean. It seems highly unlikely schools will get to build new dining halls, a few lucky schools might get a new kitchen. If you know you can’t work with what you currently have and can wangle the funding, get the architect in quick and get the planning application in, making sure of course that your tendering process is up to date and complaint. For most schools, the best you can hope for, is something extra towards a refit of the existing kitchen. Given the funding wont be allocated on a needs basis, it is inevitable schools will have to find some of the money themselves. Prepare yourselves.
From knives and forks, pots and pans, to tables and chairs, fridges, ovens, heated servers, dishwashers, towels , waste collection and bins. Someone will have to provide them and you will need somewhere safe to store everything. I suspect the uninitiated will be amazed at just how expensive commercial kitchen equipment is.
Another thing to consider is availability, I have been told by equipment suppliers there are “potential problems” a combination of an August window for kitchen installations and the short timescales they are left to work with. So find out what you need, work out where the funding will come from, and then get it ordered. Ideally you would want to test all aspects of the systems before the first day of term, to reduce teething problems.
6 Leasing kitchens
I have heard people suggesting schools look to lease kitchen pods “starting at £1000 a month”. I am not against leasing, but would urge great caution. This policy only has funding for 2 years and there are major political shenanigans going on around the policy. Please do not make ongoing commitments on the assumption the policy will continue after the election. I would also point out that a £12000 PA lease will take up all the FSM funding for a class of 30, no staffing, no ingredients, no waste disposal just the kitchen. It may offer a short term solution for some, but I would suggest schools look at leasing only as a last resort.
7 Subsidising UFSM will mean cuts elsewhere
Even with funding at £2.30 per meal, many schools will find themselves having to subsidise this policy. £2.30 is the 2012 mean cost of providing a meal, so for many, the meal will now cost considerably more. Whilst I accept there may be some economies of scale or innovative ways of generating new funds, the issues with schools being left to pay for meals ordered but not taken as well as the inevitable start up costs will soon mount up.
Given the expeenses and levels of funding, Schools and LAs will have to make savings somewhere and it may come as a shock to find they have to target other budgets just to implement this policy. It is worth emphasising that the policy is targeted solely at infants, which for primary schools will mean prioritising infant lunch provision over juniors.
8 Suppliers ability to cope
There are so many variations on the level of support schools receive, from doing it all in house to contracting out the whole service. It is almost certain you will need to renegotiate at least some of the contracts involved.
Given the short term guarantees on funding and the investment needed to expand, many third party suppliers will consolidate their business rather than expand to meet demand, some are actively cutting down on the number of schools they serve. (This is becoming a serious issue for rural schools) Sadly the way the policy has been implemented means schools have a poor negotiation position, even so, I would always try and have a clause in about the quality of food, as there is often a tendency for standards to drop over the lifetime of a contract.
For some of the big players there are certainly profits to be made (hence their support for the policy?) but Schools need to negotiate hard and try to pass on as much risk as they can get away with. Be aware there is huge pressure on suppliers, it may be the company you thought you had an agreement with pulls out if you are not profitable.
9 Consultation re extending the school day
The most common change schools will implement, will be to extend their lunch hour and to run lunch in shifts. There are many variables to think about, so no one piece of advice will fit everyone, It is worth remembering that you may need to extend the school day to fit in the statutory number of hours. In this case you need to consult and consult widely, not only parents, but local transport, after school clubs, other schools and even police. You need to give them time to adjust and or object.
The last thing schools think about is waste. Nowadays you will be charged to dispose of all food waste, and there will be lots! Even if you negotiate waste removal as part of any contract you will still need to find an accessible but secure area for all the bins. (my top tip is to refer to rats as Siberian Hamsters, it reduces the level of panic)
This list is by no means comprehensive, I could have included at least another dozen issues to think about, but time is short, these are some of the areas I believe schools should be concerning themselves with. There are a number of sites offering advice, I would particularly recommend the children’s food trust, which is the latest incarnation of the Jamie Oliver project, it is impartial and offers lots of practical advice and highlights lots of best practice. http://www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk/schools/fsminfants
Throughout this I have talked about schools finding “funding” as though it was a simple process and schools were awash with money. I fully understand this isn’t the case. Sadly the whole policy looks underfunded and schools will inevitably have to make some tough choices. Schools will have an obligation to provide a free meal, but need to be cautious of breaking the bank in order to comply. One thing is certain, school leaders will be spending substantial amounts of time on this project over the next few months.