One of the most significant documents in the whole Universal Infant Free School Meal debate came out today.
I know I have banged on about the justification, the implementation timescales and the lack of infrastructure funding. But for some time my major concerns has been the ongoing additional costs being levied on schools. I am not a catering manager, I have no way of effectively costing out meals, so I have not really ventured into this realm, (other than guesstimating that one of the ready made drop in kitchen pods, adds about 70p per meal), but the attached document was a game changer.
Recently I tweeted some interesting workings from @schoolmealplan, a caterer who has experience in school meals. http://schoolmealplan.wix.com/index#!kitchenpods/cj10
On the back of that I asked Myles and Brad from the SFP for their thoughts and any alternative figures (and I am not claiming credit, they may well have been doing this anyway). To their credit, today the small schools task-force came up with some indicative figures. I am extremely grateful to Henry Dimbelby, author of the school food plan, for emailing me to let me know they were out and for asking my opinion.
A number of things stand out.
First I have to give credit where it is due, I thought the costs were well laid out and fairly calculated, the spend on food per child of £1.20 sounds about right, though the staffing seems quite tight and doesn’t give much time for washing up. I am pleased they used a living wage, (£7.65 and £8.80 in London) and on the face of it the figures look reasonable within the constraints of using nationwide variables.
I was surprised there is nothing in the figures for the initial set up costs. Most schools are going to have to buy some new equipment of some sort, be it knives and forks, tables ect.. My understanding is that these won’t be supplied under the £150m infrastructure money and funding will be down to the schools. In the same way, the pods will need ground works and utilities supplied, in many cases that will run well into the thousands. Rental costs are in there presumably to reduce the initial one off costs and avoid maintenance, though there is no real detail of what is being rented and costs don’t appear to increase with headcount.
It is a major concern that the figures appear to assume a 100% take up. The government’s own assumptions are 87%, for many it will be less. The problem being, fixed costs will remain fixed at 100% even if your income drops. Schools must be prepared for 100% take up, thanks to Nick Clegg, they now have a legal obligation to offer a meal to all eligible children. So on the government’s own figures, there is a 13% reduction in income (and corresponding reduction for food costs) though the figures will vary and it could well be more.
The big issue, the elephant in the room and the point I have tried to make again and again, relates to the ongoing deficits. Even at these optimistic figures, almost every option shown runs at a deficit. The numbers are mitigated by the one off transitional funding, but that is only for small schools and only for one year. The real ongoing costs to schools are the figures without the transitional funding.
My quick rough calculations based on 87% take up are that ALL options will run at a significant deficit.
A drop in solution where schools receive a readymade kitchen pod at a relatively small set up costs, (£3~5000 for ground works?) is clearly an attractive option for UIFSM supporters,(hence their prominence in the literature and the fact they are mentioned whenever ministers are asked about a lack of kitchen facilities). The fact schools are having to sign up for 5 years is a concern, An even bigger concern is their ongoing cost, even using the most optimistic figures, a small school would have to find between £3000-7000 extra funding, every year.
Extra money is always welcome. As I have said many times, I believe the project is underfunded, so I am delighted there is extra money for small schools. The downside is the money is only in place for one year and it is only for small schools, there is no similar help for larger schools. I can see why the examples including the transitional funding but they are not indicative of ongoing costs.
The authors should be commended for being so open, but this document raises some extremely difficult questions for the politicians. Many schools will face a triple whammy; expensive set up costs, reduced PP funding and ongoing UIFSM budget deficits.
These figures provide clear evidence that, for some schools at least, UIFSM places a substantial, ongoing and extra burden on their budgets.
They make it impossible to argue that the policy is fully funded. Their release so late in the day brings into question both the ongoing viability of the policy and reinforces concerns that the policy wasn’t thought through before launch. We need to know more detail, to extrapolate this to include all schools and we need to justify the spend.
The money needed to subsidize UIFSM has to come from somewhere, the question is what services should schools cut?