With the Nick Clegg/Dominic Cummings bitch slapping dominating the headlines recently, a few apparently minor snippets on the free school meals debacle caught my eye.
Whilst individually each of these three items is small and fairly inconsequential to the point they went by unnoticed my most, I suspect cumulatively they are quite telling.
Firstly was a comment made by Clegg to John Humphries on today, he suggested that LAs and schools should use their existing buildings and maintenance budgets to augment the £150m UIFSM infrastructure funding.
I had a brief late night twitter conversation with one of the authors of the school food plan, I took the opportunity to ask if he thought there would be schools forced to subsidise UIFSM because their ongoing costs exceeded £2.30. He said “models suggest only very few. Laws and his team keen to keep a close eye on it. We are being asked our opinion and feeding it in” (see note 1)
Finally was the surprise comment from Paddy Ashdown on Question Time, when asked about the UIFSM, he admitted that he doesn’t think “every school will be in a position to deliver in September but ninety to ninety five percent of schools will” ie an admission up to 1700 schools will end up breaking the law and failing to provide UIFSM.
All of these combine to undermine much of Cleggs oft repeated claims the policy was properly thought through, that it is fully funded and that it WILL happen in September.
How can it be properly thought through, when infrastructure funding was an afterthought?
How can the consequences of making it a legal requirement have been thought through, when some schools can’t possibly comply?
How can it be properly funded when maintenance money has to be diverted to prop up the policy?
How can it be properly funded when schools will be forced to subsidise the policy from ongoing teaching and learning budgets?
How can people glibly state “it WILL happen” yet at the same time acknowledge a significant percentage of schools won’t meet the deadline?
The root cause of these contradictions are two fold;
Firstly the policy is clearly underfunded, both in the initial set up costs and the ongoing day to day costs. Not all schools will have issues, most will probably muddle through, but many will find themselves out of pocket as they have to fill funding gaps.
Secondly, Nick Clegg cretinous insistence that the policy be enshrined in law. By amending the Children’s act, he placed an imperative on every school to feed children from September. As a direct consequence, schools are forced to rush their implementation at an incredibly busy time with new curriculum to implement PRP and appraisals to organise. Schools face issues with staffing, equipment shortages, building over runs, full blown system failures as schools will have no time to test everything and bed in before the first day of term. All this is completely unnecessary as schools could have been instructed to implement as soon as practically possible. (The argument that the pilots managed therefore it should be fine is a false one, see note 2)
I find myself in an odd position of siding with Dominic Cummings on all this, Cleggs determination to brave this out, head in the sand, ignoring the impending crisis facing many schools because of his decisions, has become a standing joke.
Clegg needs to grow some balls, admit his mistakes and tell schools they can implement the policy in their own good time. It will be humiliating, especially with the inevitable gloating, but anything short of this will compound and perpetuate the impending shambles.
Clegg can’t maintain the pretence forever, the truth will out eventually.
Note 1. The 2011-12 mean cost of primary school meals was £2.30, even those with a poor grasp of mathematics will understand that many will have paid more. (pg 39 http://www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk/assets/research-reports/seventh_annual_survey2011-2012_full_report.pdf)
The Newham Pilot started with a cost of £2.59 in 2009 rising to £2.63 in 2011. (pg 126 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/184047/DFE-RR227.pdf)
The small schools task force are the only up to date modelling I have seen, I have serious questions about their statistical process, but even with their optimistic projections, almost every scenario is in deficit. (Pg 25 http://www.schoolfoodplan.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Small-Schools-Task-Force-Launch-information-pack-17-April-2014-updated.pdf)
Note 2. It seems a standard answer to anyone questioning the timescale to point to the pilots and say they only had 12 weeks. This is stretching reality to suit. My understanding is that the pilot areas had to bid to be included in the scheme, they had to put forward properly worked out plans well before the start date. It was then just a process of enacting those plans (I accept that was still some challenge) The pilot areas had significant specialist support on the ground, not some lame helpline or poorly attended roadshows, they could call on people to visit schools without charging any fees.
I believe it is wrong to extrapolate the relatively benign circumstances of Newham or Durham as neither are representative of the challenges faced by many areas. (Worth noting individual Durham schools had to match their LA funding allocation)
The big difference however is the scale, currently every supplier is at full stretch working out what is needed, LAs are struggling, resources are stretched much thinner and the high level of funding received by Durham (£17,000 per school) is simply not there.