One of the main concerns with universal free school meals has been the introduction of the policy in the 3,800 small primary schools with fewer than 150 pupils
Thousands of small schools are unable to serve hot food because of the challenges of delivering a viable service on a small scale. The issues unique to small schools are to do with economies of scale or more accurately the lack of them. The fixed costs of producing 75 meals are quite similar to the fixed costs of producing 250. There are extra costs associated with buying small amounts, single suppliers, transport and staffing. Add in the fact many don’t have adequate equipment and these schools face a particularly troublesome time.
Small school funding
To their credit, the authors of the school food plan identified this as an area of concern and have always campaigned on their behalf. As a result the government came up with a small school transitional grant, of between £3000 and £16200 specifically to help schools with less than 150 pupils.
Despite this grant, many small schools struggled, as it is yet another cost that they need to bear, many have deep concerns about future costs, for example, an industrial steamer/oven costs around £10,000 should they need to replace it, this would be crippling to any small school.
Sadly, George Osbourne’s pre election budget saw the funding for small schools cut to a flat £2300 per school.
Whilst this is clearly better than nothing (some expected a complete withdrawal), it makes life incredibly difficult for small schools who rely on the extra funding to keep solvent. I have little doubt that this policy could be the final straw for some struggling small rural schools.
Small school Task force
As part of the school food plan (action 15) The Small Schools Taskforce was set up to help develop solutions for the particular challenges faced by small schools in establishing a viable meals service, to demonstrate how the policy could be made to work in these challenging circumstances.
The small school taskforce under were charged with producing a model and report based on their experiences as part of “an initiative to work with around 30 small schools in a rural area to develop a model of group purchasing and other innovative measures that will deliver tasty, nutritious food to children while also enabling the meals service to break even.”
They were “Promising To build / develop a model that:
- Delivers great tasting and healthy hot lunches that children love (increasing take up)
- At a cost of around £2 per lunch
- To schools with a take up of under 100 pupils and breaks even
- That could be applicable nationally
- Ideally in time to support schools with Universal Infant Free School Meals”
They initially came up with an information pack, where they went into a flagship school to demonstrate how the provision of meals within budget was achievable. (much of this looked like an advert for a pod supplier)
Sadly the figures didn’t seem to add up (quite literally in the first few drafts) and almost every example showed schools running at a considerable deficit even with the extra transitional funding.
Basically their models show Universal free school meals is not financially viable in the longer term for many small schools, A fact confirmed when many schools reiterated when applying for extra funding.
It is clear to anyone interested in school meals that the infrastructure funding has always been inadequate and that in setting the ongoing funding level at the 2012 mean cost, there would be issues for many schools who will end up subsidising the policy. This is especially pertinent for small schools who face the highest costs.
Task force report
The small schools task force promised a more detailed report giving indicative costings and guidance for schools, with the initial hope it would be published some time prior to the implementation of UIFSM in September 2014. This was then delayed and eventually promised in November.
Then it came to light that their flagship school, Peyhembury junior school, despite all the extra advice provided by the small schools task force experts, had been unable to run a universal infant free school meal service. They were forced into asking for an extra £43,217 for new infrastructure. (oddly the SFP video promoting Peyhembury was taken down from youtube at around this time)
The original target of 30 schools in the south west was never met and the project seemed to lurch from one problem to another. To the point the small schools task force has all but disappeared from the school food plan website.
Again and again i chased this up and consistently I was told the report was delayed and delayed and delayed.
Today I finally received confirmation that the report won’t be published before the election.
Only Myles and the school food plan team know the exact reason for the delays.
Some may suspect their figures will again highlight the fact that the policy simply isn’t viable for some schools.
Some might think this bombshell is too politically sensitive, too much of an embarrassment, to publish in the run up to an election.
The Lib Dems would be mortified if the policies failings were made public and they wer forced to face the uncomfortable fact that for many schools, universal infant free school meals necessitates taking money away from teaching and learning in order to subsidise the provision.
Imagine the reaction if the school food plan published a report highlighting the UIFSM policy, rather than doing good, is actually harming children’s education. that it is leaching funds from school budgets.
I have no explanation why the report has taken so long, it could be incompetence, could be political interference, but either way the delay is shameful.
As a footnote
If the authors wish to offer up any new information or correct anything, I am more than happy to post addition evidence.