Latest on the free school meals fiasco

I thought it about time I finished this update of the latest universal free school meals shinanigans I apologies for the fact that this is so long, but as I haven’t blogged for a while i think it worthwhile to recap on some issues in order to understand the sheer level of incompetence on show.

£20 million UIFSM infrastructure funding announced

The latest fiasco really starts back with the October announcement that Schools had five weeks to apply via their Las, for £20m of infrastructure funding.  As I said at the time, the timescale meant it would be rushed, not every school would hear about the money and not every school in need would apply.

And so it transpired, I know schools who didn’t bother applying because of the £250,000 limit wasn’t enough to build what they needed, other schools didn’t know about the money and others simply didn’t have time or expertese to apply. I have heard of applications rushed through in 3 days, ones where figures were simply guessed at and where “experts” who were chefs were estimating the price of building work needed.

Despite this around 800 schools did apply and they asked for over £70m in total. (These are only La schools, academies have their own pot and applied through a different process.)

The winners and the losers

Of these 800 or so schools (about 7% of total primary) who applied for a share of the £20m, only 123 were successful.

On 20th of Jan, DfE listied the names of the schools who won, but unsurprisingly they were far more reticent about listing those who applied and failed, nor would they list the amounts requested or the reasons schools gave for needing additional funding. Fortunately LAs tend to be more forthcoming in replying to FoI requests.

As a result of my FoIs we know that a number of schools readily state the provision of UIFSM isn’t viable in the long term, some say the policy is impacting the quality of education they are able to provide, whilst some still need extra funding because they are currently in breach of health and safety regulations (examplles include: no storage so tables have fallen on children, insufficient electrical current so appliances have to be switched off when the oven goes on, inadequate ventilation)

North v south

The geographical spilt is fascinating with the South doing far better than the North and some southern LAs doing particularly well whilst many northern applications were turned down.  Many conservative and Lib Dem constituencies being more successful than labour ones. It is worth noting that both David Cameron and Nicky Morgan had successful schools in their constituencies.

The application split is 233 of 785 in total in North

55 applied in Yorkshire, only 5 successful (oddly all in conservative seats)
34 in North East with 3 sucessful
144 in North west 17 successfully applied

Hot meals over all else

In its wisdom, DfE decided that the priority should be given to those unable to provide a hot meal. This is pure politics, there is no legal requirement to give hot food. That ministers choose it as a priority over health and safety of our children is simply a disgrace

Turning down the money

As I indicated earlier, many of the applications were rushed through, but in the cold light of day, some of the schools reassessed their needs and realised the requested funding wasn’t going to meet all their requirements. As a result, some of the schools have decided to turn down the money rather than cut teaching and learning to fund the shortfall.  I know the schools and the LA, but as it isn’t in the public domain as yet, I can’t name them.

This in turn begs the question how are the schools with failed funding applications delivering any kind of quality service? What implication does this have for the future provision of meals in these schools? Where will the money be found to support the policy without cuts being made in already stretched budgets?

That schools feel the need to turn down money, shows once again the shambolic process around implementation and the funding allocation process. Some however may consider them fortunate as I am now hearing more talk of all kinds of chaos, as these rushed through, poorly specified projects going many times over budget, leaving schools to pick up the pieces and foot the bill.

When is £20 milllion not £20 milllion, the missing millions

So we know that 123 schools, mainly in the south won shares of £20 million, ONLY IT ISNT THAT SIMPLE!  The DfE without telling anyone, withheld over £4m of the funding.

They decided to set up a parallel process whereby the contracted DfE Universal Infant Free School Meals Support and Advise Service could forward applications and school could apply directly to DfE for money.

This was a genuinely stunning discovery for me.

No one told councils of this change, no one explained how it wasn’t actually £20m available any more. No one set out the criteria for DfE decision making, the limits or how the applications were being judged.

Just to be clear, without any transparency, these select band of advisors appear able to go to a school they deem has issues and put forward a proposal directly to DfE requesting cash. There are plenty of others skilled to advise who are not amongst this chosen group who have no such preferential access. The process takes no account the conflict of interests involved with commercial firms circumventing established procurement processes to promote their services and goods to schools.

It is akin to a slush fund to support favoured schools and it isn’t right.

Strange goings on in the West Country

This extra funding method came to light due to a single line in an FOI request response from Somerset council,  who initially applied for extra funding for three of their schools, however one of them (for £221,000), had withdrawn from the process and gone via the advisor, direct to the DfE.

“It was transferred to Elygra /Children’s Food Trust to complete the bid themselves as it was agreed that this would be a more effective route for Birchfield School. The bid was successful.”

This raises a number of questions, not least. Why go through the effort of applying and then withdraw before you know the outcome? Why go through a different route? How did they know it was a more effective route? What does more effective mean?

Not only were they somehow aware of this alternative funding stream, but they knew it would be a better option for them.  Just to be clear this is the only school I know about that bailed out of the initial process.

Could it be they were tipped off? Given some extra guidance? some preferential treatment above and beyond that of other (I suspect disgruntled) schools?

I try and deal in facts rather than speculation, and I don’t know what went on behinds the scenes, but I think the following facts may be salient, the school in question is Birchfield school, it is in Yeovil and their constituency MP is David Laws, minister for schools and architect of the universal free school meals policy.

George Osborne finds more money

Despite the DfE (lib dems) putting great stall in prioritising the provision of Hot meals and so recently leaving hundreds of schools without the £millions they need, the announcement of an extra £20m for UIFSM in the budget still came as something of a surprise.

I have long banged on about the serious issues facing small schools and the first part of the announcement, a cut in the small school uifsm funding, was a massive disappointment. No one should be in any doubt that the cut will leave many small schools in serious financial difficulty.

The second part, an injection of £10m for schools infrastructure, was totally out of the blue.

I initially assumed the DfE would return to the list of schools needing support they gathered in the previous round and prioritise the next tranche, or that they would refocusing on those schools still providing cold food to pupils and target the provision of new kitchens.

How wrong I was!

Out with the old in with the new

Rather than prioritise the schools who previously applied via the local authorities, this £10m (less some for academies) was to be distributed directly to local authorities with low take-up figures.

This is a bizarre decision on a number of fronts, not least the fact that infrastructures and take up are not directly related.

It’s not uncommon to have schools with fully fitted kitchens but who provide low quality meals and as a result have low take-up, whereas some schools with inadequate kitchens, who are desperately in need of extra equipment, can still be providing fantastic quality food and have 100% take up. Its not just about minor changes to infrastructure.

Winners and losers?

The change of focus to take up is even more incredible given a number of the local authorities who were granted a share this extra money didn’t have any schools apply for the previous round of money. These LAs are now receiving money for infrastructure even though only a ferw months earlier they hadn’t considered any of their schools needed extra funding from central government.

There are also questions on the methods used to select these 11 LAs, no information has been released on their actual take up, just some hint that they are under 80% (one assumes in the September census). And as with the previous set of funding, the north south divide is significant, only one out of the ten local authority is in the north, again it may just be yet another lucky coincidence.

Take up, take up, take up

So the new driver for the school meal funding is Take up (the number of pupil’s taking a school meal, often given as a % of those eligible) and whilst figures haven’t been published yet, we should have no doubt that in the run up to the budget, DFE were aware of the numbers coming through from the January census.

I blogged previously on how inflated last year’s much crowed about 85% take up appear and it seems I was right to be sceptical.  To use one off figures when there is a financial interest in, shell we say “optimising” the numbers, is ludicrous.

What we need to be looking at is the average numbers of children eating these free school meals. Sadly there are no published government statistics for the average, we do have the odd Council who released their numbers ie Thurrock  take up rate for meals averaged 67 per cent,  whilst West Berkshire who are not one of those receiving the extra money for being less than 80%, stated their average take up was running at 70-72%

Why does take up matter?

Schools find it exceptionally hard to get near 100% take up, there are always pupils with un-catered for allergies, issues with fussy eaters etc. so no one should pretend they are going to persuade every child to eat.

The original take up target was 87% (a number many like to forget these days) though it seems highly likely that the actual average take up percentage is running around the low 70s mark.

Not only is this disappointing, it is massively significant given the pilot scheme run by Bolton council in 2010.

Please take the time to look at the link and remember that the current universal infant free school meal policy is costing billions and is achieving an average take up of 70-75%

All the money, all the stress and problems yet Bolton achieve similar results without UIFSM

Panic in the streets of London

I believe this is why we are now seeing the unprecedented moves to increase take up. It is clearly far lower than anyone expected and the policy makers must act to justify the expense.  Unfortunately as with all their other interventions, it’s too little and too late.

To implement this policy properly was always going to cost billions but the lib dems tried to do it on the cheap. They have dumped their poorly thought through idea onto schools and LAs and left them to pick up the pieces.

It isn’t just about the lack of evidence supporting the policy, it isn’t just the failings on infrastructure funding or the lower Pupil premium funding.

I cannot stress enough that the ongoing funding of £2.30 per meal was the 2013 average cost. Many Many schools are having to subsidise the meals because their costs are above the funded amount. The policy is taking money from teaching and learning budgets, all for what?

So Nick Clegg can put forward the message to prospective voters that he is saving them £400!


2 thoughts on “Latest on the free school meals fiasco

  1. Pingback: Nick Cleggs Universal free school meal anouncement | Free School Meals Fact Check

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