A quick response to George Osborne’s autumn statement, particularly in relation to free school meals.
Small schools throughout England will be looking at their finances with even more concern today, after George Osborne decided against extending the Small schools transitional funding for UIFSM.
As I have consistently highlighted, one of the serious consequences resulting from the Universal infant school meals policy, is that some schools have costs above the £2.30 ongoing funding provided by the government. This is particularly prevalent (though not exclusive to) smaller and more rural schools who are unable to gain economies of scale, have higher transport costs and less competition.
In an attempt to mitigate some of these problems, the government eventually set up an extra £22m transitional fund to help schools of less than 150 pupils for the first 12 months.
As always there are issues with the cut off, problems around the boundary and the fact that many schools fell outside what appears to be an arbitrary limit yet still face problems. But on the whole it was warmly welcomed as going a long way to help the small schools targeted.
In October, we heard on World at one, how this temporary grant was the only way some schools can afford to supply meals. To his credit, Henry Dimbleby said that continuation of the funding was essential. However as I noted at the time, David Laws went all around the houses, but refused to commit to renewing the subsidy.
The fact that no extra funding was mentioned in today’s autumn statement, means many of these small schools might well be in dire financial trouble.
The obvious issue is that many small schools are already struggling and under threat and finding £5000 extra for UIFSM out of their already tight budgets is nigh on impossible. They rely on this extra cash to comply with the legal requirement to provide a meal. Take away that source of income and make schools themselves find the money and these small schools will eventually become unviable. This refusal to extend the funding just adds to the issues facing small schools.
This lack of this one relatively minor commitment perhaps highlights above anything else just how political this policy is. Laws and Osborne clearly don’t care beyond the next election, they don’t see the votes in finding £22m, so they are hanging schools out to dry. (See Note 1)
Osborne also turned down an opportunity to address the ridiculous anomaly whereby children, known to be living in poverty, but whose parents are in receipt of working tax credit, are not eligible to receive a free school meal (and associated pupil premium support). It is these children along with those who miss out on breakfasts or go hungry during holidays, who I believe we should be prioritising the funding currently being spent on UIFSM.
Note 1: Depending on the amount of fuss made over this lack of funding, I half expect David Laws to unilaterally announce that the money has been found behind yet another sofa, ie shuffled around from a different pot, just like the latest infrastructure funding. Laws and the DfE have always been reactionary with UIFSM problems rather than thinking things through and acting proactively, don’t bet against that trend continuing as panic sets in.