Last Thursday David Laws wrote an extraordinary letter to Local Authorities. Out of the blue, he found £20,000,000 to spend on infrastructure to support his Infant Free School Meals policy. He also set out details on how schools should apply.
The letter is remarkable in many ways, not least because it is acknowledging what some of us have been saying all along, namely, the UIFSM infrastructure funding was inadequate, that the original £150million was not enough and more money is desperately needed. This, despite repeated protestations from the Llib Dems, that the £150m was “the right amount” sufficient and adequate.
Not that I am suggesting this money shouldn’t be welcomed by schools, but clearly it’s a bit late in the day, especially for those Schools and LAs who raided other budgets in order to push through new provisions. They must be furious as they are not eligible to apply for any money. This funding not only discriminates against schools and LAs who already dug into their reserves but ignores the difficulties schools faced in getting there.
As one would expect with anything UIFSM related, things are not quite as straight forward as one would hope.
One particular aspect that surprised me was the source of these funds. This isn’t “new” money at all, it is “funds available within the existing UIFSM budget”. Apparently David Laws has found an underspend somewhere within the existing UIFSM provision. As many of you will know, I have been interested in the finances of this policy since its launch and I am confused as to which specific area could possibly underspent by as much as £20 million. I can’t imagine the £150m doled out to LAs was left unused, nor the money desperately needed by small schools (much more on this topic later), so I can only conclude the money comes from the ongoing funding, which can only mean the take up is 9 million meals short of the projections.
There are a number of issues within the specifics of the criteria for applications, many of which disappeared when the DfE revised the guidance, removing many contentious pointsand softening the language (i.e. they took out the explanation of fees to be charged for school visits).
‘The government will be making an additional £20million UIFSM capital funding available. Because bids may exceed available funding, it is essential that local authorities provide strong evidence in support of their bids’
So DfE are expecting some schools with serious issues to be turned down? (I believe the initial wording was much stronger, saying “will” rather than “may”)’
‘As a minimum to be assessed against this criterion, local authorities will need to confirm that schools are not currently able to offer a hot meal option to infant pupils, or that schools have put a hot meal solution in place which is not viable in the longer term’
So there is an acceptance that for some schools this policy isn’t viable in the longer term!
‘As a minimum to be assessed under this criterion, local authorities will need to show that one or both of the following applies:
- There is an adverse impact on the delivery of areas of the school curriculum.
- There is an adverse impact on provision of meals to other groups of pupils.’
So there is an acceptance that for some schools, this policy impacts on curriculum and other children’s lunch provision!
Just consider that point, a policy has been passed into law, with the knowledge that in some schools it will have a detrimental impact.
‘Local authorities should also, as far as is possible, take into account the need to future-proof bids against the possibility that future governments may decide to extend universal provision to other groups of pupils’
This is a bit of a cheek? The requirement to include planning for expansion to primary is bizarre, even the lib dems describe this policy as “an aspiration” rather than a properly funded commitment, they are vague about timings and funding, yet somehow schools are supposed to plan this in?
‘As part of its assessment of bids, the Department will look at the degree to which proposals represent value for money’
This is a lot of a cheek! Ministers pushed through this policy despite the fact that it does not offer value for money and has not even gone through a decent analysis of the business case. To require schools to find evidence of VFM when DfE can’t even demonstrate it is ludicrous.
On the issue of VFM, schools are required to demonstrate they are providing Value for money, how can they do this when the evidence that UIFSM offers VFM is non-existent, I assume schools will have to add explanatory notes to their accounts.
This “new money” reminds me of the panicked introduction of extra funding for small schools, where the government eventually realised that schools with less than 150 pupils didn’t get any economies of scale and were forced to find an extra £22m, but only for one year. As we heard on world at one, this grant is the only way some schools can afford to supply meals, yet David laws refused to commit to continuing the funding (to his credit, Henry Dimbelby called for its continuation)
The obvious problem being, many small schools are already struggling and under threat, finding £5000 extra for UIFSM out of their already tight budgets is nigh on impossible. They rely on the funding to comply with the legal requirement to provide a meal. Take away that grant and make schools find the money and these small schools will eventually become unviable. Laws refusal to commit to continuing the policy just adds to the issues facing small schools. Laws might not care beyond the next election, but schools need to plan and budget for next year?
It just adds to the evidence that this is all a bit amateurish, ill thought through and that ministers are continually forced to be reactive. We still have serious problems with issues around food allergies, the quality of provision and the regulation of meal providers because inspections and compliance checks are none existent. It is inevitable that the government will be forced to find yet more money at some point for these areas.
I am still incredulous that we are funding this policy in times of austerity. We see shocking reports on the inequality suffered in this country, yet seemingly without any question we are funding free meals for people perfectly willing and able to pay for meals themselves. People should look at this weeks report on holiday hunger to see an example of where we should be steering spending and targeting it on the most needy.
This money is yet another PR driven sticking plaster for a flawed policy, it is too little and too late!
A couple of footnotes
On LBC this week, Nick Clegg suggested that his UIFSM policy has a positive impact on dental health. There is NO evidence to support this, but as usual the Deputy Prime minister seems happy to make up facts as he goes along.
The guidance reiterates that schools can get support visits, what they neglect to mention is the £250 fees that have been charged. This fee has been waivered until after Christmas when it will doubtless return.
Schools supplying cold meals are being put under severe pressure to deliver hot meals, despite the legislation not including any such requirement. I am at a loss as to why schools should be forced to spend their sparce funds on this political requisite.