Liberal Democrats regularly talk about the need for accountability and transparency.
So I thought it fair to ask where is the transparency in the decision making behind the Universal Infant Free School Meal policy. Where is the accountability on its implementation?
I have little doubt on the first day of next term, we will see Nick Clegg grinning inanely in some flagship school, with a nice shiny kitchen and large hall. He will glory in telling the assembled media how their policy is saving hardworking parents £440. What we won’t see are politicians in the many schools who will have “teething problems” we won’t see them helping out as untested systems fail and children inevitably go hungry.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that for many schools, expanding their service to include all infants won’t be too difficult and that some just need a prod and guidance towards best practice. But a significant minority won’t find it easy or cheap and it’s that minority who need more help than they are currently receiving. I am weary of hearing overly optimistic promises of “it will all be fine, there is a helpline” whilst at the same time heads and LAs are screaming about the problems they are experiencing, mostly concerning money or more specifically the lack of it.
Looking forward, the lack of any criteria or any definition of success must be of concern for all involved. There is currently no measure against which we can decide if the policy is actually doing what’s supporters want, if it actually benefits children. I am not talking about politicians, self satisfied glorying, but proper, tangible measures of effectiveness for the stakeholders.
Now I may be out of the loop, there may be university researchers queuing up to evaluate the benefits, civil servants,calculators in hand counting all the spend, but nothing has been made public and the recent offering from the small,schools task force was underwhelming.
Transparency is vitally important, not just for people like me, who think the policy wasn’t thought through, but for supporters of UIFSM who want to extend the policy beyond the two years funding currently promised. We need to see an impact assessment, we need ongoing monitoring and we need evidence before thinking about expanding the policy.
To this end, here are six measures of accountability that I believe need to be put in place.
- There needs to be full transparency over the decision making process behind the UIFSM policy. An explanation as to how the VFM was calculated, who was consulted on the practicalities and why the SFP UFSM plan was ignored. I know this is a bit of closing the stable door… but there are lessons to be learnt from all this.
- We need some success criteria, a definition of what constitutes success and failure, both in short term practicalities and longer term aims. I would like hard targets from ministers so we can measure the effectiveness of their policy and its implementation. (I know ministers don’t like setting themselves targets, but given the DfEs new ks2 85% 4b floor target, my sympathy has evaporated)
- Independent and ongoing evaluations into the quality of school food. We can’t allow free food to become poor quality, that defeats the very basic ethos of the policy (we need more than the half baked suggestion that Ofsted will somehow check on the food and behavior in the dining room), we need to do more than checking on how nicely pupils sit or how UIFSM is promoted, we need a clear strategy to monitor ingredients, sourcing, sustainability, provision for allergies, hygiene, health promotion, etc….
- Full scale transparent reporting of schools actual FSM provision. Not surveys, or averages of averages, let everyone know from day one, how many children receive a hot meal, how many a cold meal, how many take in their own and crucially how many are left hungry. It is essential that we know how well it went or how bad any teething problems are. Positive or negative. we need to see what impact the policy has on schools,on teachers and on learning and that information needs to be publicly available.
- Full disclosure of all the costs. Not just the headline figures, but the full set up costs from LAs and schools. We also need to establish the scale of ongoing costs being borne by schools. It is unacceptable that the government is allowed to underfund this policy by simply passing costs on to schools, then pretend everything is fine. If schools are forced into cutting elsewhere in order to subsidize the policy, we need to know the cost and the impact, not least so future governments can properly budget for any expansion of the policy. We should also be looking very hard at the way LAs academies and small schools are spending their allocations, ensuring it is being spent wisely.
- We need to understand the ongoing benefits of this policy. We need to check it is making a difference, that it offers value, that we are not simply putting money into a nice sounding policy that has no significant academic impact. I know separating out UIFSM benefits will be a challenge (as seen in the pilots) but it is essential that a billion pound education policy is rigorously scrutinized and shown to stand up to that scrutiny. DfE expect rigour from school interventions, it is only right the inverse is true.
Accountability comes in many forms, sadly very few of those forms appear to be on show as yet. Any fool can draw up a policy that looks great on paper, that works for 80% of schools, it is dealing with the 20% of difficult cases that takes the thought, the planning, the time and the money. Much of what I have suggested, the measurement, the research publishing results will require new central funding, but i don’t think anyone could argue against those funds needing to be found.
Politicians need to be open and ensure the checks and balances are in place and this UIFSM policy lives up to their promises.