I recently received a couple of responses to my Freedom of information requests. As expected they highlighted some of the chaos that surrounds the Universal Infants Free School Meals policy. In this blog I will be making quite serious allegations about the implementation of UIFSM and the politics around it. Some of this necessitates an explanation of the background and an understanding of the details. It is very much a case of what I had to leave out, even so the blog remains longer than I hoped. My intention is to put forward the facts as I know them, I am happy to add or amend anything if anyone knows better. If anyone wants specific details on any aspect, please contact me.
On July 12th 2013, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent published their excellent School Food Plan, a genuine step forward in improving school meals. They made 17 recommendations, 16 of which were accepted immediately, the only one not accepted was “The government should embark upon a phased roll out of free school meals for all primary school children, beginning with the local authorities with the highest percentage of children already eligible for free school meals“
Apparently Michael Gove supported this recommendation “in principle” but wasn’t prepared to back it with any money.
On 27th of July 2013, David Laws wrote a letter to FSM campaigners, pouring cold water on the idea of extending free school meal entitlement, stating It “would inevitably be costly. We estimate the current cost of free school meals to schools and local authorities at £460 million per year, and the department’s budget remains very tight. Any increase in eligibility would inevitably mean a reduction in the budget available to spend on other areas. We will need to consider what the evidence tells us of the benefits of providing free meals to more children, compared with the benefits of using these resources to pay for other aspects of children’s education or other ways to alleviate child poverty“
Not a categorical “No”, but definitely not supportive of expansion. I also looked to see if Nick Cleggs showed any enthusiasm at the time, a quick google search comes up with nothing from the Deputy Prime Minister, indeed he appears to have no interest in free school meals at any point, there was nothing in any prior manifestos, we even saw some Lib Dems actively opposed the policy, describing UFSM as “food for the richest kids“
However it is clear that this particular recommendation triggered something within the DPM, as less than two months later, to the surprise of absolutely everyone, Nick Clegg offered up to the Lib Dem conference his only substantial policy for the year, his very own version of Universal free school meals. “We are going to provide free school meals for all children in infant schools. From next September, we’ll give every child in reception, year one and year two a healthy lunch every day“
It is really important to understand how Cleggs policy differs from the recommendation made by the school food plan. The SFP recommendation was “that free school meals should be extended to all primary school children, starting with the most deprived areas” a gradual roll out to Key Stage 1 and KS2, prioritising the poorest in society.
The authors experience of expanding a successful chain of restaurants is clearly evident in their proposal of a gradual roll out (I particularly like the fact they target the poorest areas first). They set no firm completion date and significantly targeted all primary aged children, as evidence from the pilot showed junior aged children made twice the progress infants did.
The SFP didn’t go into any great detail over the practicalities of implementing universal free school meals, not least because the recommended gradual roll out would necessitate being done on a school by school basis, under the SFP recommendation, if you found some schools needed more work than expected, you just row back on the roll out speed. I also believe the authors knew this was unlikely to be accepted, which may explain why they didn’t include any specific costings or estimates for infrastructure.
The original evidence base for universal free school meals has always been the 2012 UFSM pilot report (the SFP had no remit to do new research into UFSM). This report was solely an assessment of the three pilot schemes in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton. It goes into great depth about many issues but when it comes to the practicalities of setting up the scheme and the associated costs, they are unable to make any concrete recommendations; they state “the information provided is not comprehensive enough to be able to robustly estimate the fixed costs of the pilot” and “Of course, it is highly likely that facilities, and thus the fixed costs associated with improving those facilities, vary dramatically across authorities; thus these costs should be treated with caution and regarded as indicative only” . Because of this lack of detail on setting up of the pilots, the authors steer clear of reaching any conclusions on set up costs and make no recommendations in relation to the practicalities of expanding the scheme nationally.
As an aside, Much has been made of the fact Durham was ready for the pilot in just twelve weeks, but that assumes they started from scratch (they had detailed plans and had already bid to be on the trail) they also had an average of £17000 per school set up funding and significant support of the School Food Trust, The circumstances cannot be extrapolated out to the whole country.
So to be clear, at the launch of the school food plan, no one had any issued any clear recommendations on the implementation of universal free school meals, certainly nothing on the detailed practicalities or costs involved.
Yet just eight weeks later, Nick Clegg felt able to promise a whole new policy, backed up by statute. The question is, how did he know what he was announcing was achievable and deliverable? What changed in the period between the launch of the school food plan and the Lib Dem conference? How was the eminently sensible approach recommended by the SFP get rejected and replaced with the mess we see now?
The general consensus this specific policy was dreamt up as a cynical attempt to win over voters, the dirtiest of deals whereby the Conservative party would be given £600 million of tax-payers money for their favoured married tax allowance in exchange for gifting the Lib Dem £600m for a policy of their choosing. Nick Clegg chose to jump on the free school meals bandwagon with his share of our money.(austerity? what austerity!)
The problems arise because of Cleggs insistence on a Big Bang providing hot meals to all infants. This policy could only work if all schools have full working kitchens for September, if caterers could cope with the sudden increase in numbers, that suppliers had enough equipment, staff could be recruited and trained, that schools could fit in all the infants and feed them in a reasonable timeframe, most importantly in its original form it relied on schools not needing any additional infrastructure funding from central government.
Clearly the DfE weren’t consulted. We have Dominic Cummings stating the DfE only knew about the policy 1 hour before it was announced. (The suspicion being that the Clegg didn’t trust Gove to keep quite if he found out). The Dfe clearly can’t have offered up any assessment of the state of infant school kitchens, as they hadn’t done a survey of school kitchens. (logic shows up the lie that £150m infrastructure is enough, if you don’t know what is needed, how do you know the amount you set aside is enough to pay for it)
So we are left with the uncomfortable conclusion that the school food plan, the pilot evaluation report and DfE didn’t provide the requisite information on the practicalities or costs of delivering the policy.
The only way Nick Clegg could know if he was offering up a deliverable policy, rather than some ill thought through shambles, would be if he discussed the details with experts in the field, experts who advised against the SFP recommended roll out to primaries in preference for Universal Infant Free School Meals backed by law to be implemented in September.
Thanks to the freedom of information act, I was able to find out which experts Nick Clegg and David Laws met in the period in question. Who advised them to ignore the SFP and that UIFSM was doable.
The answers were more shocking than I anticipated.
The response on Nick Cleggs meetings stated categorically that The DPM didn’t meet anyone relating to the policy. It reiterated the false claims that the policy is based on the school food plan and shifts the responsibility to David Laws, who apparently met DfE officials to discuss the details.
My subsequent request on David Laws meetings came back with a more ambiguous answer, though I am assured it translates as he also had no meetings with experts (if the DfE wish to list who he did meet, I am happy to amend my blog) and once again reiterated the false premise that the policy is based on the recommendations contained in the SFP
Just to be clear, insiders at the DfE were unaware of the specifics of the policy, indeed it would be amazing that the DfE had produced anything specifically on Infant free school meals as no one had ever previously proposed this particular policy. Even more amazing would be if they had analysed this option and neglected to includes any infrastructure funding or set up costs, We can safely assume David Laws who works In the DfE would have known of any evidence and included funding in the original policy had there been any prior discussion.(interestingly in parliament Clegg and Laws only refer to consultations they have had after the policy was announced)
The speed that “hot” was dropped from the original suggestion, the ad hoc way an extra £150 million then £23m then £17m had to be found, the repeated criticisms that the time frame was too short, that some schools don’t have kitchens and that far more that £150m was needed for infrastructure costs, all add to the case for DfE having to tidy up the mess created by the policy rather than driving it.
So we reach the inevitable and damning conclusion that Nick Clegg didn’t know how many schools were capable of delivering the food he was promising and worse still, he didn’t bother to ask any one.
I understand it is a quite a serious charge to make, to suggest that the Deputy Prime Minister committed a billion pounds of tax payers money without knowing if what he was promising was achievable, worse still making it law, but I think accusation is supported by enough evidence to stand up.
At the time of his announcement, he had no idea if the policy was viable, he didn’t have proper infrastructure funding in place, leaving councils and schools with massive bills just to implement his policy, I am sure the DPM will appear on our screens in the next few days telling everyone how he is saving hardworking families £440 a year, celebrating with the great and goodat the DfE, but any claims of successful implementation will be based on a lie, it is schools, LAs and ultimately children’s education that pay the price for this policy.
He cant say this policy was from the SFP, it is clearly so very different, Cleggs one big policy announcement of the year was based on nothing more than guesswork and misplaced assumptions.
Clegg and Laws have always sidestepped the issues surrounding the implementation (utter balls?), unfairly deflecting blame onto unwilling or obstructive heads, offering up an impotent helpline as an answer to all ills. This particular aspect annoys me more than any other. It is utterly ridiculous that a serious politician can announce a policy and enshrine it into law, without knowing it is achievable. The Lib Dems say “The plans are fully tested, well designed and properly funded” every single part of that sentence is a lie!
By not doing the proper investigation, Nick Clegg placed a massive burden on our education establishments. Schools and LAs are now forced to divert millions of pounds just to implement this properly. Clegg relied on school leaders to find the resources, transferring any responsibility, leaving them in the lurch and in many cases, out of pocket. (far more so if they are one of the schools whose costs are more than £2.30).
Head Teachers will make this work, despite Clegg, not because of him. They will sort it and make it work, because that’s what heads do. But that is no excuse and shouldn’t deflect attention from the chaos and ineptitude that surrounds this policy.
It is time Ministers owned up to the UIFSM omnishambles they created.
Time to say Sorry again Nick?