In advance of tomorrow’s Daily Mail front page, I am rushing out this draft of my blog, appologies for its rough state.
Over the past week the Universal Infant Free School Meals policy has been receiving regular press, much of it rather negative. I have heard the heads of 6 different schools complain that the policy is underfunded and they won’t be able to implement the policy for September. Yet supporters of the policy respond with glib statements like “we must make it work, it will work”, “Head-teachers need to be empowered to have the will and skill” and that it will be “absolutely fine”and schools should “get on with it”
Perhaps the most intense criticism appeared on Fridays World at One when Graham Stuart MP, chairman of the education select committee was scathing in his criticism of the policies implementation, I would really would encourage everyone to listen to him. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01tgj71
I have the greatest sympathy for Mr Stuarts view, it alliegns quite closely with my own on this matter. I believe this is more about Lib Dem pre election politics than doing right by children and that the political interference has turned what could have been a reasonable idea into an omnishambles.
Probably as shocking as the level of criticism was the response from Nick Cleggs office( 1). It should should concern everyone, that they claim that the UIFSM policy is “fully tested, well designed and properly funded”. This response is risible, it not only contains three lies within just seven words, but it shows in no uncertain terms how little understanding senior politicos have of the policy they are forcing on schools. I look at each claim in appendix A.
Sunday saw David Laws appearance on Pienaar (2) as far as I know, the first time the minister responsible for UIFSM has spoken publicly on the policy. Laws was resolute in his defence of the lib dems increasingly implausible position, that everything is fine, there’s nothing to see, and we should all move on.
The irony of a minister stating “It is not the job of ministers to prescribe particular interventions” shortly before telling school leaders to get on with implementing the UIFSM, is clearly wasted on the hypocritical Laws.
As one would expect, he mentioned that children made progress in the trail, bragged about the vast sums involved and of course talked about the savings this policy would mean for hard working families.
He pointedly avoided offering any explanation as to how struggling schools should cope by denying there was a problem and deflecting attention onto the helplines, as if a call centre can solve everything.
It typifies the thinking that in answer to suggestions they are out of touch and don’t understand the realities on the ground, they set up a helpline, further distancing themselves and absolving all concerned from any culpability when things go wrong, and they will go wrong in some schools, have no doubt about that whatsoever.
This avoidance of true debate is the most shocking aspect of this fiasco.
Rushing through a policy without proper discussion of the supporting evidence would be a concern if it related to a single school, but this is a billion pound government policy that is going to statute and comits future governments to enormous levels of spend and as far as I can see no one has asked a minister for evidence it offers value for money?
Perhaps because superficially the policy sounds so attractive, or perhaps it is part of some shady political deal, but to date there has been no real investigation into the justifications or impact. So far there has been no proper explanation as to why we are targeting infants, or how we should judge the success of the policy. No one has really been held to account for the policy, so far It’s been a heady mix of politics, selective blindness and bluster. The difficult questions have never been answered, instead those asking them are labeled scaremongers and told to stop carping.
Once changes are made to the children’s act, providing FSM to all infants will become the law, there will be no allowances made for schools who don’t have facilities or who aren’t allocated funding. No exemptions for schools who face is a shortfall between the cost of the meal and the government funding. Schools are obliged to abide by the law, even if it’s bad law.
I have serious doubts about the justification, the implementation and the accountability surrounding this policy. Nothing I have heard so far changes that view.
It really is time the supporters were stood up to be counted, answered the difficult questions, provided evidence to support their case and stopped hiding behind the facade that everything is fine.
Off the back of my highlighting David Laws barefaced lies in my last blog, it is now the turn of the office of the deputy prime minister who state the UIFSM policy is “fully tested, well designed and properly funded”.
How can UIFSM be fully tested, it has never been tried on this basis or on this scale? Each school is individual and to extrapolate the pilots out is plain madness. The two pilot schemes were relatively small, had considerable DfE support and few of the scale issues created a national launch. The data available on fixed costs from the pilots is “not robust” and a number of issues came up when implementing.
If it is a well designed policy why the repeated changes, why the need to find an extra £150m, then £17m and now £22m, why the delays in explaining practicalities? I think there are real concerns that the policy has no design at all, never mind being well designed. The policy is very different from the SFP some look to use as validation, as I have shown time and again, the SFP simply can not be used to justify this policy.
How does anyone know if this is properly funded? On the initial infrastructure costs, no one knows the details of new and extra funding each individual schools actually need, consequently the level of funding is little more than guesswork? To assert the policy is being properly funded, they need to be open and transparent with the calculations and process that led to the £150m figure they deem surfactant. (I can imagine a number of FoIs heading in DfEs direction on this) I would question if the statement is true on an ongoing basis as well. With the payment of £2.30 per meal being set at the 2012 mean, there will obviously be shortfalls for some schools, If a school has to cut somewhere else to pay for this, it can’t be properly funded.