Universal Infant Free school meals,  Five Winners and Five losers


Henry Dimbleby MBE and John Vincent MBE

Hats off to the Leon guys, they ran a near perfect PR campaign to “save school meals”. The masses were galvanised in a collective fight against the evil Tories, signing up en masse to save school meals and prevent the poor from starvation. Only that wasn’t quite as simple as that. Whilst the outrage built at the thought of ending school meals for the poorest, people were actually signing up to save Nick Cleggs universal infant free school meals policy, UIFSM not FSM, a distinction seemingly lost on many and discouraged by few.

It was classic spin over substance, few actual facts but lots of innuendo and artifice. Lots of spurious unsupported claims were rolled through unchecked in today’s 24 hour news cycle. John and Henry used their media nouse, celebrity friends and business partners to push the cause and were exemplary in their use of social media, setting up petitions and paying to promote tweets etc.

But to my mind, their key move, was to specifically target David Cameron. They avoided trying to persuade the DfE with evidence of value for money (mainly because there isn’t any). Instead they played on Cameron’s weakness, his love of headlines over long term policy.  It’s been said before that David Cameron is driven by a short-term media agenda and crisis management, there is no better evidence than the U turn on this policy.  By repeatedly compared ending school meals to “Thatcher the milk snatcher“, supporters knew they would hit a nerve.  Cameron, desperate not to be on the wrong side of this well organised PR barrage, quickly crumbled and “appears” to have committed his government to retaining UIFSM. (I still am not convinced he said it as bluntly as is reported)

In overriding both DfE and the Treasury, Cameron has dug George Osborne a considerable hole. Osborne demands and expects large cuts from each department. Now it seems on the PMs whim, DfE will keep an £850 Million policy it previously planned to cut. It seems unlikely  DfE will make similar savings through cuts to early years or sixth forms, so the costs will now have to be shared around other departments.

Had they not already received MBEs, I would be nominating these Henry and John for a medal.

Big catering firms

Don’t for one second think there aren’t massive vested interests at play in all this. No one should doubt that large amounts of cold hard cash are involved. The big multinational catering firms like Compass, Brakes and their ilk have been pressing hard and pushing to keep this policy in place, not out of altruism, but because it is government backed cash cow for them.

Last year Chartwells made £30 million profit from UIFSM, that’s £160,000 a day, just from infant free school meals.

Not only is it a welcome regular income, but it is essentially a state funded loss leader, DfE subsidising children to get used to school meals.

The smaller caterers are still there but struggle to get the economies of scale that the big boys manage. These big firms can spend as little as 45p on ingredients and still meet the school food standards (where applicable), they cross subsidise and often undercut smaller local firms. Retaining the policy is a massive win for them.

Children whose parents previously couldn’t afford a school meal but didn’t qualify for FSM

This group of children are the real winners. The ones who fall outside the FSM eligibility criteria but whose parents struggle on low incomes, including those officially living in poverty but are working. For three years, these children now get a school meal. It is the undoubted success of the policy that this tranche of Infant pupils benefit.

My question all along is whether universality is the best way of catching this relatively small set of children? Wouldn’t refining the FSM eligibility criteria so as to target those in greatest need of all ages be better, these children would then receive pupil premium and all the other benefits of FSM throughout their school life not just in infants.

Wealthier parents

In pure cash terms, these richer parents are the biggest winners of the whole policy. If you are one of the 35% (ish) of parents who previously paid for your young child’s meals, miraculously the state now does this for you. Saving £437 pa per child, (which is a fair amount of prosecco or a nice ski trip).

Let’s say it as it is, this was an electoral bribe to voters in the lib Dems core demographic, younger middle class parents. Save them some money, publicise the saving relentlessly and hope they are gullible enough to vote Lib Dem on the back of it. It was a targeted tax rebate for those with money and does nothing for the  very poorest, who already received FSM.

Schools with new kitchens 

A relatively small number of schools managed to get funding for new kitchen facilities and whatever happens with the policy, those school kitchens will stay, (unless anyone was daft enough to follow the SFP ridiculous suggestion that they lease a pod for £1000 pm).  The extra investment in facilities should be welcomed.


Small schools

It has always been known that Smaller schools are particularly vulnerable with any UFSM policy, because of the high costs involved with catering for small numbers. Many small schools are rural  with little if  any choice in providers where it isn’t uncommon for small schools to pay £2.75 just for the meal (they have to fund the electric, gas, water and equipment, themselves). The extra small school funding has been cut by at least a third and many are really struggling. This was one message I received recently “we subsidise hot meals to the tune of £6000 per year. That is a big chunk of our small school’s budget.”  This is by no means unusual and will put the very existence of some schools at risk, especially given the future costs, (see next section).

This whole situation is not helped by the continued delay of the small school task force report that was promised a year ago.  It seems highly likely that the report is being buried by the SFP because it shows up the dire finances of UIFSM in small schools.

Unless more money is found, We should have  no doubts that the extra burden of UIFSM will be the final straw that closes some of our smaller schools.

Infant Schools

UIFSM was dumped on schools with little notice, using a pricing model that was based on average costs from 2012.  School leaders have spent countless hours working out how to implement the policy, many thousands of pounds buying in equipment and many have lost out as numbers signing up for Pupil premium (FSM), drop off.  

School leaders get on with things, it’s the way they are, but implementing this policy has caused many heads and Governors serious stress and worry and unless the funding increases significantly, the worry will only get worse.

In the noise over saving the policy, few noticed that it is already underfunded and saving it requires extra money. In the reporting of the spat between John Vincent and  Sam Gymnah, This sentence seemed to pass people by, but it is critical in understanding the future of the policy.

One of those at the meeting told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It had not been going long when Mr Vincent suggested there should be a greater taxpayer spend per meal”

In this instance, the Leon boys are quite correct, the ongoing funding needs to rise and central government need to pay.

I know this all sounds like scaremongering, but as schools face a real terms funding cut of around 12%, the government continues to set the ongoing funding for UIFSM at £2.30. This is the average cost of a meal from 2012 and 39p less than the costs encountered by Newham in the 2010 pilot.

Staffing is the single highest cost in school catering, typically taking up 40-50% of any school meal costs. Due to the minimum wage rise announced last year, these staffing costs will go up by around 10% next year, eventualy rising by 38% to £9.00 (for the record I think a living wage is a good thing).

There is no way caterers can absorb that level of costs increase (there will be rises  in national insurance, food and transport costs as well) so the burden will have to be borne by those who pay, either schools or by the government.

The DfE have made it quite clear that they dont see the policy as a priority, only for them to be overridden by the PM.  DfE know there isn’t evidence the policy offers value for money and are already under pressure to make drastic reductions in none ring-fenced departmental spending, so it seems unlikely they will be be prepared to cut other areas like early years or sixth forms just to bankroll the extra costs of providing meals.

This means it is highly likely that burden will be passed onto schools and it is they who will end up paying to subsidise the policy.

A 38% rise in staffing will mean around 35-40p rise in the cost of each school meal.

For a large infant school,  just the additional catering staff will cost around £30,000 a year. That is the budget for a full time teacher from already tight school finances, spent subsidising UIFSM.

This isn’t fiction. Cameron can glory in  saving uifsm, but unless the government commit to properly increase its UIFSM spending, schools will be forced to pay to support the policy. John Vincent knows that and it appears he made sure in the bluntest of  terms that the DFE and ministers are fully aware.

So we have a situation where not only are there hundreds of schools in need of millions in infrastructure, but the ongoing funding is inadequate for many and it getting far worse. We face the serious prospect of schools having to cut staff to fund subsidising free meals.

Local authorities

The majority of LAs spent far far more on infrastructures than they received in the allocation from central government. With LA funding under extreme pressure already, this was the last thing they needed. We had the frankly perverse suggestion from ministers, that LAs should be funded the policy from their schools maintenance pot. Some LAs resorted to only offering support if the schools matched funding, others bit the bullet and spent millions from their education budgets on this, which will have obvious knock on effects for the counties school children.

With LA funding being slashed even further and DfE capital (buildings and schools maintenance) being targeted for savings, Las are really going to struggle to maintain the levels of support they currently provide. On school meals this will likely mean that individual schools are left to replace equipment from their own budgets.  Whilst this doesn’t sound to arduous, it is worth remembering that a commercial oven will cost £10,000 and few schools set money aside or properly depreciate their kitchen equipment.

Sadly many schools don’t have a full grasp of the true cost of their school meal service, they don’t meter gas & electric use, they don’t set aside for replacing equipment and rely on LAs to bail them out. That era of benevolence from LAs appears to have ended.

The Tax Payer

In times of austerity, the tax payer should rightly be looking to receive value for money. We should expect ministers to be prudent, be vigilant and do all they can to ensure our money is spent wisely.

We should remember that around 50% of primary pupils had a school meal prior to the UIFSM launch  (either FSM or paid for by parent). Take up is now averaging out in the 70 -73% range, so the policy only brings new benefit  to 20-23% of infants, that’s around 5% of the total school population, this  at a cost of over £850 million a year.

No one has ever properly argued the UIFSM policy offers value for money.

No one is looking at academic or health outcomes to do a cost benefit analysis

No one knows if this policy is having a positive or negative impact on pupils and there is certainly nothing to suggest it will ever pay for itself.

We don’t monitor the quality of food and adherence to the standards isn’t mandatory for many schools and even if it were, there is no one who checks.

There were never any success criteria laid down for this policy. The only notional target was a presumed 87% take up figure, which incidentally has never been met. With this years changes to the way SATs results are recorded, we will never have a comparable baseline to show any improvements in attainment. Worth noting that there was no real change in attainment in the first year off the policy, despite promises of a dramatic impact.

Basically we are spending the best part of a billion pounds a year on a policy that has no monitoring and no real evidence base to support it.

Future Targeted interventions, Breakfast clubs and Holiday hunger

It now seems highly unlikely that new money will be found to help many of our weakest and most vulnerable children. There was a hope that if UIFSM was dropped, the government could be shamed into replacing the scheme with better more targeted interventions focusing on the poorest pupils. Any hopes seem to have faded dramatically with the prime ministers recent intervention.

As mentioned earlier, there are a small but important minority of children, living in poverty but not eligible for free school meals. This is an issue that has regularly been highlighted and as usual Frank Field MP, puts far more eloquently than I could, “The threat to UIFSM could also give the education secretary a golden opportunity to make better use of her department’s limited resources. Some 1.5 million poor children are currently disqualified from receiving free school meals because their parents claim tax credits to top up their income from low-paid work.

Incredibly the numbers of children living in poverty but not in receipt of FSM and those we feed through the UIFSM policy, are around the same, yet the government choose to prioritise those it deems able to pay, above those in greatest need.
A serious issue facing all schools is that fact many children arrive in the mornings  hungry after missing breakfast.  Whilst it is unheard of for infants to go hungry because they miss a lunch, it is common for children of all ages and backgrounds to come into school hungry and remain so all morning.  The solution is simple and relatively inexpensive; free or subsidised breakfast clubs. They are a fantastic way to combat the most common hunger we see in schools, but sadly I hold out little hope that breakfast clubs will now be properly funded and extended by the government.
School holidays are an incredibly tough time for some families. Children who receive school meals often go hungry in school holidays.  I know some will bleat about bad parenting, but unfortunately some people live chaotic lives and sadly and often it’s the children who are left to suffer. We shouldn’t shy away from the fact that by supporting families on the breadline through holidays, we are directly improving the health and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable in society. By involving school we also keep up the link with education that can so often be lost

I had a genuine hope that the government could be convinced to find a few million pounds to set up and properly support national holiday hunger programs, that seems increasingly unlikely now.

I remain amazed that we are in a situation where the state pays to feed the children of millionaires and we prioritise that policy above feeding children living below the poverty line.


The figures on take up are approximated because there are no hard figures available.

The last take upfigure prior to UIFSM was 46.3% though there was a significant upward trend.

The average take up (as opposed to the wildly distorted census data) appears to be around 70-75%, the best source is compass, the biggest caterers in the world, who claim 73% take up for UIFSM



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