Free school meals, a month on, hows it going?

It’s now a month since Nick Cleggs glamorous party celebrating the launch of his universal free school meals policy, time to end my silence, time to see how things panned out.

If we are to believe all we are told by the Lib Dems, everything has gone perfectly. Of course no one in their right mind would actually believe a word Nick Clegg says, but more on that later.

We predictably saw Lib Dem MPs sat in specially selected schools with lovely halls and kitchens, telling everyone who would listen how great it all is, how it is saving parents £400, (after all that is the main message they want to get across to prospective voters).  Not one of them was seen helping out in one of the many schools having problems, it simply wouldn’t do.

So who is right, what is the reality and what happens next?

For the record, I have always maintained that most schools would be able to implement the policy without too much disruption; I know that many schools have decent size kitchens and decent size halls, Schools where upscaling to offer meals to all infants isn’t that difficult. BUT I also know that many schools will struggle, that a help line is no substitute for hard cash and that this policy wasn’t thought through, it was rushed, underfunded and it would show. I have always understood that Nick Cleggs glib “teething troubles” translate into children going hungry, into staff spending hour upon hour sorting out meals instead of educating children.

That Nick Clegg continues to lie is without doubt, I have rarely heard as big a porky as this “The evidence, and this has been exhaustively analysed, piloted, examined, is that giving a healthy hot meal at lunchtime is as, if not more, effective than many of the, say, literacy and numeracy initiatives which have been undertaken in the past in the classroom. It has a dramatic effect.”  the Today programme

I am sick of filling this blog with evidence to show Nick Clegg is lying, Facts even a nine year old can grasp, yet seem alien to Nick Clegg, so I am starting a separate blog, A Free school meal fact check, to point to the evidence, to highlight the facts, not the spin.

So what has been happening on the ground?

It would be remiss of me not to start by highlighted the mess we are seeing in parts of Dorset, not least because I am caught up in the middle of it. Schools having to order Pizza because food wasn’t delivered, sending food back because it is inedible, problems with supply and logistics caused by the unparalleled expansion allied with a new supplier. And don’t be fooled into thinking it has all been sorted, or that Dorset is unique, the problems persist and are happening all over.

But we don’t see many of these problems in the media, mainly because they are hidden within schools. How many parents know if the sausages their children are given such cheap rubbish, so bad,that no one eats them? Who knows if lessons run late because service takes so long, or if children don’t get their PE because the hall is taken up for hours? Who sees heads, SLT and Governors taking hours out of their days to sort the issues out?

It’s only the odd extreme cases that get reported. All of them fairly predictable, we see children forced to go to church whilst their classes are set up for them to eat, Teaching time being cut,  Juniors missing out so infants can be fed, Poor quality food, Schools charging for drinks. The biggest outrage appeared over a child being fed a single chicken nugget, perhaps people should ask what they thought would happen with the sudden expansion of meals, with caterers being stretched, with funding being set at the 2012 mean cost? (I find it interesting that buried in the occasional news report; heads tend to be quite critical of the implementation, despite the obvious spin put on by politicians.)

So the picture is varied, but I certainly expect more and more of these tales to leak out. Schools by their nature are good at coping with change and not bringing attention to the impact changes have, they avoid sharing bad news and the media spotlight.

So what next?

A number of serious  issues are coming to the fore

The lack of special diets, especially for those with allergies or religious requirements will become a major issue. Unfortunately,  many parents naively believed the politicians and are now demanding that universal meals should be universal and include all children, but it isn’t that simple. Schools and caterers are being stretched to their limits, the schools food plan recommended schools cut down on choice in order to speed up service and cut costs. The obvious consequence is that relatively more expensive special diets are being cut. I dread to think of the consequences of a child being given contaminated food, prepared by a minimum wage temp who hasn’t had effective allergy awareness training?

I have no doubt that Clegg will pass the buck and pretend it is everyone else’s fault, but it is typical of the lack of planning that has gone into this policy. If the powers that be had thought this through they could have put something in the standards, but they didn’t (nor did they apply it to academies).

The issue of food standards will comei into  focus at some  point, i know schools who are not meeting the current food standards,suppliers claiming to be gold standard but failing to meet the requitements. i have little doubt that some of the tracability requirements will be missing in some schools, but no one checks, it is almost entirly self regulated, its not asthough we can simply rely on trust in the food chain, we have had more than enough food scandals to  show the need for strong inspection regimes, but enforcement costs,  so it isnt happening.

There are some major issues with the amount of food waste, we are throwing away tons and tons of food as a direct result of this policy, and disposal of that food waste costs schools vast sums

Talking of money, schools will soon start seeing the bills rolling in. they will have to reconcile the extra costs like food waste, like electric, water, equipment depreciation and staffing against the government funding of £2.30 per meal.  For many, this will mean schools subsidising the policy from other budgets.  Ministers know full well that some schools will be running at a loss (and some at a profit) but sooner or later these losses will hit schools, money will have to be found from somewhere, its one of the Big unansweereed questions, what should schools cut if they need to subsidise this policy? (it will make interesting reading when school accounts are signed off as providing Value for money, given the evidence shows this policy doesn’t offer VFM compared to other interventions)

All this makes the way the funding is calculated even more important. In yet another DfE coock up theey are using the data collected in the school census to determine the next 5 months payments. Schools have too list how many meals were “Taken”  so that number can be multiplied up.  There was no definition of what constitutes “taken” which could well leave some schools with a shortfall ie in Dorset where numbers are low, if the food improves as promised and numbers go up, schools will have to bare the shortfall. As a consequence, I suspect many schools will game the system and  be providing every child with a meal on the census day, so they can assume 100% take up and receive full funding for all their children

Then there is the issue of pupil premium funding, many schools are genuinely worried that this policy will impact on the numbers signing up for FSM and the associated Pupil premium funding, the government simply wash their hands, telling schools to work harder. time will tell how serious this actually becomes.

There are issues with children losing lesson time as lunch hours are extended, indoor PE being lost as the hall is unavailable, TAs being diverted to help prepare lunch. Lots of little things, but cumulatively they matter.  Just imagine if the money and effort that has gone into implementing this policy had gone into targeting the poorest and weakest rather than saving parents who can afford meals £400?

But at least we can rest assured that the policy is doing some good, at least we could if anyone was checking? No one in authority appears bothered about how much this policy actually cost? How much time was spent, the levels of disruption it causes, its left to people like Radio 4s Jon Manel to make the effort and ask schools.

So the implementation went as predicted, most schools coping, inordinate amounts of school leaders time spent getting there. For some there is disruption, for a minority implementing this policy has come at a tremendous cost. The decision to ignore the SFPs recommended roll out has put huge amounts of unnecessary strain as everyone rushes to be ready. This may all seem rather prosaic, a tired man saying I told you so, rattling on against the tide, but I am saving my outrage for my next blog.

Just one final point, whilst Nick Clegg was enjoying his evening champagne with such school meal luminaries as Jeff Brazier (whose sum contribution to school meals appears to consist of two tweets and a cut and paste article in three low brow magazines) I received a phone call from a head teacher, still at school at 8pm writing up the child protection documents he couldn’t do earlier, because he spent all morning chasing up the lunch delivery before eventually organising Pizza for the children!

This policy was salvaged by wonderful school leaders like this. They are the ones who had to effect a badly thought through policy in an unrealistic timeframe. They were forced by legislation to put things in place, irrespective of the cost. Heads and Governors implemented the policy despite the politicians ineptitude and lies, lets never forget that fact.


2 thoughts on “Free school meals, a month on, hows it going?

  1. Pingback: Four reasons to be outraged at the Lib Dems and their free school meals shambles | not very jolley

  2. Thank you for including a link to my website and my rant about school meals!! I am so glad you mentioned the issue of special diets. I don’t know many people who are managing to get decent meals for their kids with allergies etc.

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