It is now six months since Nick Cleggs Universal Free School Meals announcement, meaning schools have less than six months to be ready. Despite rambling on about UFSM for much of that time, I have had very little official contact on the subject.
Today that changed.
I thought I would try the official DfE twitter account with a question, see if I could clarify things on the fairly fundamental issue of how schools will be paid for the meals they provide.
The conversations went like this
@ajjolley to @educationgovuk
on UFSM, can I confirm that schools will be paid in arrears only for the meals taken?
We haven’t yet confirmed how the funding arrangements will work. We plan to announce more details shortly.
from recent letter “the fairest approach is to allocate schools a flat rate of £2.30 per meal taken, based on actual takeup”
implies schools need to know how many meals have been taken to claim money for those taken
Are you saying might be different
Still haven’t confirmed funding details as I say. Haven’t got anything else at the moment that I can tell you, sorry.
This just goes to highlight what I (and others) have long suspected, DfE don’t actually seem to know how the USFM policy will work out in practice.
As I mentioned, the recent Gove/Laws letter states that payments will be paid for “meals taken”, implying schools will have to provide numbers of meals taken and will then receive ongoing funding based on these actual numbers, all seems fairly clear and straight forward.
Whilst this looks a fair way of funding the policy, there are significant problems doing it this way. The administration involved for schools, LAs and the DfE will be horrendous and it will inevitably be expensive. There will have to be separate systems in play for infants, non infants and FSM? There will be databases filled with daily UFSM numbers (assuming there will be a computerised system ready by then). It will be open to fraud, where schools are tempted to claim for meals that weren’t really taken, meaning the system will require significant audit trails. It will also build in a time lag between schools providing the meals and receiving the funds, which could well cause cash flow problems.
There is no obvious equatable (or cheap) alternative, I can’t imagine DfE want to pay every infant school in advance for all the children on roll, which is probably why they are still dithering.
Where this creates significant problems, is that schools need to be negotiating on contracts right now, they need to be putting things into place for the September start date of the policy.
To go into discussions without knowing on what basis you will receive any funding makes negotiating almost impossible, schools really are flying in the dark until DfE get their act together.
Third party Contractors are not much better off, they have no idea what level of investment to make, what number of meals to commit to or how many schools to supply. They understand the difference between providing 100% of a school with meals on a daily basis and supplying a variable number based on who chooses to take a meal on any one day. One provides for a regular profit, the other might well not.
One this is certain, the longer the DfE prevaricates and delays explaining how this policy will work in practice, the less likely it is that schools will be ready for a September roll out.
I am hoping my next blog will be on the 5 ways this UIFSM policy actually increases social division.