With the political landscape looking so very different to a week ago, a number of people have been soliciting my views on the future of Universal Infant Free School Meals.
Whilst no one can foretell exactly what will happen, undoubtedly the most important factor is the demise of David Laws, the architect of the UIFSM policy, who along with most of his Lib Dem colleagues, was unceremoniously dumped by the electorate. His influence over the DfE will soon dissipate, a temporary yellow blip, as a renewed vigour for austerity and a marked shift to the right, takes hold of government.
The policy aims were laudable, if somewhat vague. The lack of evidence, the dearth of planning and the lack of thought, alongside repeated underestimation of the true costs involved, simply created chaos in the system. Russell Hobby was correct when he recently suggested schools “rescued the government from its own mistakes” by making “bad ideas succeed”, of this, there is no better example than UIFSM.
The story so far
So we are left asking the question, will the Conservatives support the UIFSM policy in the future?
Perhaps the best way to know is to look at their historic interest.
There has always been an undercurrent of disquiet about the policy on the Tory right. Many Conservatives arguing for greater parental responsibility, sceptical of the nanny state and balking at the cost being borne by tax payers.
I have been assured by the authors of the school food plan that the then Secretary of State, Michael Gove, supported universal free school meals in principle, but he took the view that it could not be a priority. As such, universal free school meals was the only one of the plans seventeen recommendations to be rejected.
Under Nicky Morgan’s reign, most new financing came from existing UIFSM allocations. There was a less than impressive £20 million found by George Osbourne in this year’s budget, but £20M hardly smacks of a government with wild enthusiasm for a policy.
The delay in publishing the small school pilot (due last November) may well be a sign that ministers, civil servants and proponents of UIFSM are aware that the policy is in trouble. Surely if the report contained good news, it would have been pushed out prior to the election?
But I suspect most significant is the fact that the UIFSM was only ever funded for two years, a clear indication as far as I am concerned that Conservatives were never fully on board and ensured they had a get out.
There are reasons the policy might continue, the authors of the SFP will no doubt try and persuade DfE to carry on, as will the caterers and support organisations, who have a vested interest in continuation (some caterers have invested significantly on the back of UIFSM). But, with schools having to absorb funding cuts of over 12%, it seems likely the policy will become as much a victim of the election as the party who conceived it and struggled through a troublesome and often painful delivery.
I believe it would be obscene to see SEN provision cut, teachers sacked and schools going bust whilst we continue to spend money feeding children whose parents can well afford to pay for a meal. As far as I can see, ending the policy is a no brainer, the only real issue is the timing of the revocation. Do ministers strike quickly, before too many parents get used to the policy or do they wait?
When not if
I would suggest the sensible option would be to end the policy next summer, as the funding is already agreed and in place to the end of the 2016 school year. Ending UIFSM provision will also need time to make changes to the children’s act, because of the way the policy was implemented. These legal technicalities mean it is unlikely there could be any phased withdrawal, it’s all or nothing.
This timeframe also opens up the possibity of taking a leaf from the Lib Dem manifesto and commissioning an investigation in to the UIFSM policy. Depending on the terms of reference and without prejudging the outcome, finding the policy isn’t living up to the lib dem promises could well provide cover for ending the policy. After all no one seriously argues it offers value for money or that it is sustainable with the current levels of funding. My prediction is a series of briefings against the policy, building up to a report showing it isn’t providing value, with a fig leaf of addressing holiday hunger, to soften the blow.
Positives to be found
There are positives to be had, we should never lose sight of the fact the school food plan has been a massive boost to the profile of school food. We have seen new targeted investment into school kitchens, training and professional standards for staff and the recent focus on quality will undoubtedly make a difference so long as it is maintained. Sadly (and disgracefully in my view) the lack of research will mean we will never properly know if the experiment was a success or not.
I would hope we can move on and concentrate on alternative solutions to some of the issues highlighted by the policy. None of these proposals cost significant sums and all will help in a far more targeted way.
- We urgently need to automate the system for registering pupil onto free school meals.
- Parents need reassurance that FsM children are not identified, address the perceived stigma.
- Food Quality needs to improve, parents need to see the school meal as healthy and value for money
- We should consider expanding Fsm entitlement to all children living in poverty, this would include those whose parents claim WTC, who don’t currently qualify for free meals
- Breakfast clubs should be funded and widespread, this will not only help the poorest but will support working parents
- The support on offer for children on FsM during holiday times needs a step change, it is unacceptable that children are going hungry in the holidays.
With the inevitable cuts in education budgets, now is a time to get the best out of every pound given to schools. UIFSM costs £13100 per class, I suspect most people now accept that giving every child free food is not the best use of that money, let’s just hope the money saved, remains in education.
It’s hard to get away from the thought that Universal Infant Free school meals was the wrong policy, at the wrong time and that it was done for the wrong reasons. I believe it is a matter of “when” not “if” the policy is revoked, the best we can hope for is that the money saved is reinvested back into schools and not syphoned off.