This unintended consequence was highlighted on day one and the concerns have increased with time. Ministers have had almost 18 months to put plans into place, but still there is nothing. They are fully aware that automating the application system is a simple solution that would solve the issue of parents not signing up.
David Laws said: “We’re working on a medium-term solution which would remove the bureaucracy…. where parents have had to sign up for free school meals where there’s often been a stigma in doing so so a lot of them haven’t done that. Actually it is sensible to have a data sharing arrangement in Government so we can automatically identify these people”
I spent all my working life in IT, I know there will be some issues (note 1), but I can’t believe there is anything insurmountable there.
The fact is, the government already know who is eligible for FSM, they have all the data they need and can access it, so the question is why don’t they automatically sign up people on the relevant benefits? On PP and FSM, David Laws says “There is no way we’re going to allow the policies to be undermined, I can assure you of that.” I would say to the minister, what is stopping you, what’s stopping you doing something right now?
There are four possible explanations for the apparent apathy, all of which contribute to the inaction, to a lesser or greater degree
1; I get the impression that ministers and advisors don’t think there is really a problem (see above assurance). Schools Minister David Laws also said he was “confident” the free school meal scheme could be delivered without any adverse effect on pupil premium funding. The attitude seems to be that anyone suggesting UIFSM would impact on PP numbers was simply “scaremongering”.
This isn’t helped by government advisors who rather foolishly seem to think there is a simple “Trick” so solving FSM sign up issues and that all schools need to do is to ask all parents to apply for FSM.
In general, schools throughout the country put in a tremendous amount of effort to try and catch every child eligible for FSM, but it isn’t easy, in fact it’s very hard, very very hard! Which is why it’s frustrating to hear ministers simply wash their hands of it and dump all the responsibility onto schools. (note 2)
“We’re working on that now but in the short term I don’t believe this is going to be a problem and we’re working very hard with local authorities and schools over that.”
2; The implementation would straddle a number of different government departments, HMRC, DWP and DfE would all need to work together, their systems would all need to work together, there would have to be a decision made on who did the work and who paid for what work. All of which requires someonein authority to take the lead and bang heads together.
3; The government have been waiting for the Universal Credit system to get up and running. This has been delayed and delayed and is still unlikely to work for family units for some considerable time. There is little doubt that allocating FSM on the back of a new UC infrastructure would be a much easier solution, but all the time we hang on and hang on, there are children who should be entitled to FSM, missing out.
4; The cost of a sudden increase in FSM pupils. This is where the governments UIFSM policy and the Pupil Premium clash. The cost of providing a FSM is only part of the total and would amount to £400 a year for as long as the pupil remained eligible.
The more significant figure is the pupil premium every successful application would attract. There are around 200,000 children eligible for FSM but not currently claiming. Once signed up for FSM, each child automatically becomes entitled to £1300 a year for 6 years. That is around £7800 for each and every one, making a total of 1.5 billion pounds for the government to find.
We should remember that some schools have been hit by a triple whammy as a direct result of the universal free school meals policy
- Many will face lower pupil premium funding
- Set up costs which were unfunded by central government or the LA
- Ongoing costs in excess of the £2.30 funding meaning schools need to subsidise from other budgets?
At this point in time I can only go of gut feeling and anecdotal evidence, but the January school census will for the first time show up the impact UIFSM has on people applying for FSM and the consequences for Pupil premium. I doubt we will get to analyse the results this side of the election.
The assurance from a Liberal Democrat source close to the schools minister David Laws that “if this does prove to be a problem, we will take further action to fix it” carries little weight going into the election,
Lower Pupil premium take will likely be added to the list of UIFSM policy failings, small school funding, allergies, quality assurance, schools running at a loss, LAs running out of money, DfE lying about the evidence base.
As always it’s schools who will bear the burden of the Lib Dems not thinking this policy through.
The greatest difficulty faced in implementing the IT solution would be the requirement for a manual override running in parallel, not all children’s names tally with what is put on parents forms, often there are spelling differences, or people put names in different orders, parents split up and move in with other people, but good analysts know this and would be able to adapt the system.
There may be some data protection issues, though I can’t imagine it is any worse than schools requesting Parents DoB and NI number and checking FSM eligibility on a regular basis, which seems to happen in some areas.
I have heard some argue you have to be an oracle to have predicted there would be a problem, justifying their complacency on the back of FSM numbers in the pilot staying about the same. The problem with this particular argument is the launch of the Pupil Premium coincided with the end of the UIFSM pilot. There was a fresh impetus for schools throughout the country to improve FSM take up. We should also remember that the pilot did much more than simply provide FSM, lots of additional work (and funding) went on alongside. As with much of the pilot “evidence” relating to UIFSM we need to look at what else was going on alongside the pilot before making simplistic assumptions.