Nick Clegg and David Laws went on the offensive this week, releasing the census figures and spreading the good news on Universal free school meals take up. This coincidentally came the day after the Lib Dems voted to keep the bedroom tax, though it would be cynical to suggest this was simply an attempt to distract people by issuing an “ad hoc” announcement and to gain some positive spin on their flagship policy.
Regardless of the motive and timing, the press did their job, headlines were written, sound bites shared, but little analysis was done on the figures themselves, so here goes….
The first thing to remember is that the 85% take up was almost certainly an overestimate of the numbers of children actually eating. My gut feeling, is the true uptake figures are almost certainly a good few points lower, around the 70-75% mark nationally.
Obe of the most obvious issues is the way data was collected. the question on the census form asking schools to record if a “pupil has taken a ‘school lunch’ on census day” which has always seemed vague and open to interpretation.
Schools knew the information they provided would be used to calculate the ongoing meals payments they would receive, giving clear financial incentives for schools to over report. Add the fact the wording is open to interpretation and we inevitably saw schools gaming the system; ordering meals for every child regardless if they requested it, asking parents put off cancelling their orders until after census day, the most common practice was putting on “specials” that day to increase take up.
Whilst it is certain no school would understate the numbers, (they would be left out of pocket if they did) it seems highly likely that some degree of exaggeration went on. This kind of gaming happens because the DfE plumped for a snap shot view they can extrapolate, rather than administer a system with true meal take up figures. This was predictable and obvious.
Even if we accept the 85% as accurate, it is still lower than the government’s own planning assumptions of 87%. All of which should be rather a disappointment, after all this is free food we are giving away. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this lower than expected take up. Obviously the quality has an impact (see Chartwells in Dorset), but we should also be looking at issues with food allergies and special diets, as these may well cause a significant number to take their own food. Until this is addressed, we will always fall short of 100% take up.
Meanwhile Ministers talk about the rise in take up, as though people taking up the offer of free food was some kind of surprise? The Lib Dems preferred emphasis, was the difference in numbers between those who had free school meals prior to the policy and those having s free school meal now. One point they were keen to avoid was the number who are now getting a meal for free but who previously paid. Figures are sketchy, but school meal uptake in primary school used to run at 45-50% with around the 17% mark being free. Meaning around a third of infant children ate a school meal that was paid for by parents.
So the actual increase in meals taken, is about 600000 or about a third of infants. It seems the majority of children now “enjoying” a free school meal, previously “enjoyed” a meal under the old system. Under this policy however, the cost has been transferred away from the parent and onto the tax payer.
One final point about the spin being placed on this by the Lib Dems who come up with “An extra 1.3 million infants now eating free school meals” and “1.3m schoolchildren across England are now enjoying a free school lunch“ in its simplest terms, there is significant difference between children taking a meal and actually eating it, never mind enjoying it, however this subtlety is lost on the politicians in the scramble to spin this announcement
Since originally writing this blog it has come to my attention that West Berkshire Council state “the average daily take-up has settled at around 70-72%” obviously well below the governments figures but it is massively significant when taken alongside the data from Bolton, who achieved the same take up by reducing the price they charged. One has to ask about the efficacy of a system that costs so much when others can achieve the same for far less?