On the back of my recent blog evidencing the fact that the UIFSM policy wasn’t thought through, i hope people find this blog of even greater concern.
In today’s austere times the pressure to have evidence based policy grows, DfE commissioned Ben Goldacre to write a paper on Building Evidence into Education and the government rightly insists that detailed business case be put to the Treasury prior to funding being agreed, (you may recall the embarrassment when the Business case for Universal Credit was not signed off)
With my interest in the Universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) policy, I thought it would be worthwhile asking to see the rationale within the UIFSM business case, so I put in a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the Treasury to see how strong a case had been put forward.
I was expecting to see a well supported civil service assessment of the costs involved, evidence to support the benefits, comparisons, solution options, resources and plans for implementation, measurable goals and clear risk assessment for all project milestones, (the Treasury even sets out the rigour it expects in its Green Book)! To be honest I thought I would find a few inconsistencies I could highlight, as part of a blog.
I was genuinely amazed at the response from the Treasury.
“This information was published on 26 July 2012 in evaluation reports which analysed the effectiveness of value for money of a 2-year pilot that tested different approaches to extending access to free school meals“
So the Business Case consists of… the Assessment of the Universal Free School Meal Pilot report!
I was dumbstruck for lots of reasons, my immediate response was how on earth can both the DfE and Treasury think a Two year old report would somehow suffice as a business case for a billion pound policy? The pilot assessment document was never designed to be used as a stand-alone business case, it doesn’t purport to be. It doesn’t have any costings, Nor any proposals on implementation. I have no real issue with the report, basically it is what it says on the tin, it is an assessment of a government pilot project.
I am even more annoyed that the treasury did no due diligence and gave it the thumbs up. If anything typifies the underhand politics involved with this policy it is this, there can be little doubt that David Laws and Danny Alexander’s sticky fingers are all over this Lib Dem fix up.
Even once you get past the inappropriateness of the document, we really have to question how deeply the report was examined by the Treasury. (I wonder if they looked)
In saying the “report analyses Value for money“, the Treasury blatantly ignore the fact the calculations in the assessment report are based on £220 per child per annum, half the £440 the policy is currently costing.
The report does a very limited cost benefit analysis against a couple of interventions, since publication many more Educational interventions have been investigated almost all of which show better results and offer far better VFM. Even using a £220, the actual report states that the policy may not offer VFM, at £440 it most certainly does not.
But the most significant and to my mind, devastating part of the report being used to justify the policy is the fact that it can’t truly evidence that providing free meals actually makes a difference.
The whole pretence of the policy is based on the assumption that providing free meals will improve attainment, (the pilot found no evidence of health or behaviour Improvements, despite Nick Cleggs misinformation) but there is significant doubt as to the fact that the free school meals were the cause of any improvement shown in the pilot. The independent Public Health England reviewed the pilot evidence and stated
“An evaluation of the Free School meals pilot in England found that the universally extending provision of school lunch eligibility to all students impacted on attainment at Key Stages 1 and 2. However, the study was unable to establish if this was the result of providing free school meals or the wider package of activities associated with the pilot. The extension of eligibility below the level of universality did not demonstrate an improvement in achievement”
So no causation was proven?
The pilot report itself acknowledges there are doubts about any causation
“These effects on attainment could have arisen through the provision of free school meals directly or through the wider activities that accompanied the pilot, such as the promotion of school meals and healthy eating to pupils and parents, or both”
“The source of these improvements in productivity is not clear”
“It is important to note that the mechanisms underlying the improvements in attainment observed in the universal pilot are not clear.”
So it could be that simply talking up healthy food to parents could cause the improvement , or the teaching improved, it was a bright cohort, or the comparison areas didn’t match, yet the treasury ignore these caveats to fund the policy?
I am still waiting for the associated correspondence, which will provide more context as to when and how the departments dealt with the decision, but we should have no doubt, if this is the business case, we are seeing an unmeasured unprofessional sham.
I have banged on about universal free school meals for almost a year now, I was variously described as a naysayer and negative, whilst being told to look at the evidence which would prove to me the policy was worthwhile. So I have, I have looked at the evidence and have shared my misgivings on a regular basis, all the while having to listen to politician lie about the policy and its implementation.
I know it isn’t popular to say, It isn’t what the school food plan recommended, it isn’t evidence based,it doesn’t offer VFM, we shouldn’t be extending free school meals to infants. But I believe this is pure politics, the benefits are undefined and there are far better ways to target more of the most needy children (We should be taking holiday food and free breakfast far more seriously)
Some people will not be the slightest bit surprise that the policy justification is so shambolic, more will doubtless come out about the chaos, but in my opinion needs proper investigation by the Education select committee.
The evidence that this was an ill thought through political fix is clear and straightforward for everyone to see.
I would like serious questions to be asked about how we plan to measure the benefits
Who is checking the total actual cost of setting up the policy?
What happens to those schools who have costs above £2.30?
how did they ignore the lack of evidence around UIFSM and its VFM?
Did politician know they were lying?