My quick response to the School afood Plan letter in The Times

With the prospect of the Tories killng off the Lib Dems universal free school meals, the School Food Plan engeneered yet another one of their usual stunts  producing yet another an open letter before pestering a small number of the countries 16000 headteachers to sign.

Like so many of the outpourings of the school food plan of late, this letter smacks of desperation, it is high on innuendo  and exageration and low on accuracy and evidence, it’s spin over substance.

Probably best to go through it all paragraph by paragraph

“AS HEAD TEACHERS we believe strongly that the introduction of universal infant free school meals last September was a visionary step by government to ensure access to a hot, nutritious school meal every day.

The main implication seems to be that prior to universal infant free school meals launch, children didn’t have access to school meals, which is simply not true, the key difference under this “visionary “policy is that the state now pays for infant meals rather than the parents.

It’s also quite clear that not all children have been able to access Hot or Nutritious meals under this policy.  There is no mention of HOT in the legislation and no requirement to provide hot meals, indeed there are schools still having cold food 

The evidence is this has significantly more nutritional value than an average packed lunch. It is already helping children to learn better and to develop good eating habits and to try new foods. We are sure these habits will provide benefits longer term, helping to address issues such as obesity and improving health into adulthood.”

The argument that school meals are more nutritional simply doesn’t stand up. We no longer measure nutritional values as we have changed to food based standards meaning there is nothing to stop Turkey twisslers appearimg on dinner plates. And because the new food standards don’t apply to around 4000 academies, the regulations on healthy food only apply to four in ten children.There is NO evidence Universal free school meals on their own will improve children’s progress!

There is NO evidence universal free school meals  alone improves health and well-being!

Is that clear enough? 

The evidence base is deliberately  muddied by the way the letter shifts from the UIFSM policy to a “good hot lunch”  they decide not to mention  the 46+ (and rising) percent of children who had meals prior to the policy introduction who obviously recieve absolutely no new benefit from this policy. They are trying to imply significant benefits without any evidence at all.

Whilst we may see changes in eating habits, UIFSM is an enormously expensive way to gain relatively minor improvements for such a  small minority. UIFSM is not the only way to introduce new foods or to educate children on food and  it is preposterous to suggest everything happens before year three and that there are not cheaper, better value alternatives that could work throughout a school life.

It also is worth noting that  the school food plan are trying to jump on the bandwagon of the next big issue and tie the policy in to the fight against obesity, but unfortunately, they can’t get away from the fact the pilot found no change in BMI. Their claims are nothing more than speculation and wishful thinking.

“The setting up of UIFSM was certainly quite a challenge for many schools and caterers.  But this hard work has been done, the investments have been made and we believe the benefits of these free school meals for all infant children far outweigh any decision to cut back funding or worse to disband with the programme altogether.  Recent surveys show that close to 90% of children are taking up the offer of free school meals and 95% of parents see the value of their children having a proper meal in school. “

Talk of hard work being done and complete is totally outrageous.  Of over 700 who applied for extra money last year, only 123 were successful. Hundreds of schools are still in need of additional infrastructure work. Schools up and down the country are still struggling in inappropriate and ill equipped kitchens and halls..  This is a deliberate ploy to suggest everything is fine and there isn’t the need for additional spending.

It is interesting that they “believe” the benefits of the policy outweigh the costs, rather than post eny facts. In these days of evidence based policy, surely we need some actual evidence of what the benefits are, we need look at some kind of cost benefit analysis to ensure the policy offers value for money. Unfortunately for uifsm supporters, the pilot was unable to state universal free school meals offered value for money even though the cost base was only £220 POA Per child around half the current £437 cost.

Now I come to the most blatant and deliberately misleading part of the letter, the suggestion that close to 90% of children are taking up the offer of free school meals.

Government statistics show the figure on census day to be 86%, however that is nowhere near a true reflection on regular take up.  Schools are paid for the numbers “taking a meal” on census day, they are incentivised to boost numbers with cold hard cash. This is why we see census day special menus, but its not just schools who manipulate the figures, the government instruct schools to include absent children in the figures because the coalition wanted it to appear more successful.

If you want the true number of children eating school meals you could do worse that look at the numbers stated by Compass, the world’s largest catering firm and one of England’s largest school meal provides, their sample size is enormous and rather than 86% they claim 73% take up. This figure is reinforced by the stats of Portsmouth who have 84% in the census but state an average of 70% and West Berkshire 82%  again claiming a regular take up of 70%. Leading anyone with any sense, to the conclusion that there is a 12-14% difference between the census and reality, ie if like Slough, you have 78% on census day, the regular take up percentage will likely be in the mid 60s.

These figures are of great importance because prior to uifsm school meals take up been moving up towards those figures anyway, the blue line in this graph shows the trend, it is also worth noting that Bolton Council managed a genuine 70% take up by increasing subsidies and cutting costs.

“As Headteachers, we believe that, for all its initial challenges, the hardest work has now been done.  It is now time to commit to embedding this programme more fully into schools and to ensure all our children receive a hot, healthy school meal every day.”

Its obvious to anyone involved on the ground that there is plenty of work still to do. Many schools and LAs are subsidising the policy from other budgets and have nothing in reserve should any equipment go wrong. This policy is a drain on resources, particularly of small schools as many have costs well in excess of the £2.30 ongoing funding (the school food plan people might have bbeen better off publishing the long overdue small school taskforce report rather than penning another inaccurate letter and lobbying heads to sign it). 

One of the main reasons the policy is under threat is the fact everyone knows that it will need even more money both for infrastructure and as ongoing costs increase. There is a lack of monitoring or evaluation to show this money is worth spending which makes it doubley  difficult to justify the expenditure.

I am not against school food or free meals in any way, we should of course have a safety net for the poorest and weakest in society, indeed I beleeive the qualifying criteria should be expanded and applied to all age groups. We should be also be concentrating on providing good quality food, promoting it to parents as value for money. 

But we certainly should not be fooled into thinking this letter is all it seems, those with a vested interest in school meals desperately want the scheme to carry on despite the lack of evidence it is beneficial to schools or children. Chartwells made £30million out of universal free school meals last year. With those kind of profits, you can be sure we will see many more supportive letters fighting to have the policy remain in place.

When schools face real term cuts in their budgets, this policy is a luxury we simply can’t justify. This letter does nothing to further the case.

Some simple questions for the heads

Where is the evidence that the policy offers value for money,what improvements in progress, in  health benefits should we see in return for the £800,000,000 spent last year?

How many heads would choose to spend £13,000 per class on meals if they had a say in the matter? How many will put their money where their mouth is, if/when the policy is scrapped?

Do they really think that the state taking over paying for the meals of wealthier pupils really offers value for money?

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