Yesterday saw a Boston catering firm banned from trading and Nick Clegg deny there was chaos with delivering school meals in parts of Dorset, insisting people should trust his word, (tuition fees anyone?)
On the face of it, the chaos of school meals provision in Dorset and the closing of a school meals supplier in Lincolnshire are local issues, but the root causes of both can be traced back directly to decisions made in Westminster by The Deputy Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrats.
Nick Clegg decided to ignore the school food plan recommendation that universal free school meals be gradually rolled out, preferring instead to go for a Big Bang launch. Ignoring the inherent dangers with this course of action, Clegg decided the chance of some extra publicity, would be worth the risk. This decision was compounded by the fact there was no prior consultation with people involved in school meals. This meant the Deputy Prime Minister didn’t know if the people on the ground would be able to cope with the sudden surge in demand. Indeed he had no idea if the policy was deliverable when he stood up at conference and proclaimed this as his great new idea.
The kind of chaos we have see was inevitable, and has been replicated on a smaller scale many times over. The time scales involved were unnecessarily tight and enshrining the policy in law, meant schools are now legally obliged to provide all KS1 children with a free meal. This placed massive pressure on schools, diverting leaders, sapping their resources. Many areas really struggled to be ready on time. That some didn’t manage shouldn’t be a surprise.
(It is interesting to know the consequences for a school failing to provide a meal? Are Lincolnshire heads to be disciplined in some way? Does DfE give out exemptions, if so where is it in their authority?)
This whole sorry saga also brings into question the finances and regulation of school meals.
The government are fully aware, there are serious issues in rural schools, where costs tend to be higher. They offered some transitional help to very small schools, but many rural schools have one class entry and are therefor above the 150 pupil threshold (and the money is only for one year, Laws refused to commit to longer when pressed). Good food firms are pulling out of some rural schools, consolidating what they have, especially where transport costs are significant. This often leaves schools and LAs with little choice of caterer.
I am in no way absolving the supplier in question from the responsibility, but where there is little if any profit to be made, little competition, the temptation to cut corners will inevitably be greatest.
Incredibly, despite spending well in excess of £billion on this policy, there is no provision for any monitoring of school meals.
Food 4 Thought failed standard council hygiene checks, netting themselves a £13000 fine and £4k costs. They continued to supply schools, who in many cases had no other way of providing meals in the timescale. F4T then went into liquidation, but continued to trade without any certification or insurance. A sorry tale on its own, but at no point had anyone checked to see if the meals comply with school food standards, to see if the food is healthy or allergen free. (I suspect some will try and defend the status quo by pointing out that the caterer was eventually stopped, but we have no idea about the quality of food he was serving, hygiene or the state of kitchens ect. Had F4T managed to stay afloat, no doubt they would be carrying on, serving their food to the children of Lincolnshire)
I have repeatedly highlighted the lack of oversight as major failing by policy makers, how bad must it get before they act?
Politicians shy away from any blame, but it is their actions that created this mess, they must accept some of the responsibility.