At the recent Conservative party conference (where talk of school meals was conspicuously absent as though it was banned for some reason), two announcements from the podium caught my attention because of their indirect impact on school meals.
Rightly people are sceptical and most of those who know primary sector understand it is pure politics and not likely to happen any time soon. Not least due to the lack of suitable high quality MATs who can take on thousands of primary schools. But a little thought through consequence is the impact such a move will have on school food.
Many local authorities still organise and manage catering contracts, indeed many still run their own schools catering services. (I am not going to get into the pros and cons of in-house verses commercial caterers, there are pros and cons for each) needless to say, all this will change as more and more schools convert to academies and LAs have their budgets cut and cut and cut again.
I suspect most people don’t realise quite how much LAs support the school meal service. This could be hard subsidies where councils like Islington knowingly and consciously subsidise the service. Or softer hidden subsidies, many schools use LA provision without realising they are benefiting from economies of scale brought about centralised bulk contracts, often in rural areas, schools receive support on transportation costs as larger contracts cross subsidise
Perhaps the most common funding is where schools rely on LAs for assistance with equipment and kitchens. Schools spurn setting aside money or depreciating larger items, safe in the knowledge if a ten grand oven needs replacing, the LA will sort it and sort it quickly.
In purely practical terms, if you remove LAs from the equation, you lose LA subsidies.
End LA subsidies and costs will undoubtedly rise for schools, particularly small schools.
We also saw an unusual announcement by Nicky Morgan, as she informed conference that she was giving parents the right of free speech (something most people assumed they had already). More specifically she announced that parents would be given “the right to request” schools to open their doors longer during the day and throughout holidays.
I doubt there have been many instances of parents being banned from asking any question, but the Secretary of State clearly wants to ensure even if it did ever happen, it won’t ever happen again.
She isn’t actually ordering schools to open up a swathe of new after-school childcare, simply be open to the idea that someone else might want to use the school facilities. But Parents and groups have always been able to ask use school premises and I suspect where practical most schools have done their best to help and comply.
But it seems NiMo was pushing for a headline, that she alone was overseeing a revolution in childcare, she was personally ordering those lazy good for nothing schools to do more.
The problem is, without more money going into the system, nothing will really change. Parents and third party providers will ask schools to use the facilities, and schools will rightly say, we are already using the hall for our own afterschool activities and/or we would have to charge you for insurance, utilities, cleaning and rent, which is often a deal breaker.
It all reminds of Nick Clegg and his blasted universal infant free school meals. A policy that offers up great sound bites but the lack of thought prior to announcing it at conference means it impractical for all schools.
Perhaps Nicky Morgan would have been better employed supporting schools and funding to a level that allows the schools to open longer? Because (this may be a surprise) the idea that schools open longer, particularly through the holidays is one that appeals to me and I support, with the caveat it is properly funded.
By opening schools early we could run proper breakfast clubs, helping address the scandal of children going hungry through the morning because they missed breakfast.
Opening in school holidays would give the poorest pupils the opportunity to have a healthy lunch in school, which would go a long way to addressing the issue of holiday hunger. It also has the added benefit of keeping some of the most vulnerable in touch with school and linked in to the learning environment. I am not suggesting lessons all through the holidays, but talking to a teacher or TA about the book they are reading, could be just the thing to keep children interested in their education
But as always it’s about money. Setting up after school and holiday clubs that run on a fully commercial basis, does nothing to help those in poverty whose need for such provision is often the greatest.
Schools are in an ideal position to help struggling or chaotic families, but as always it all costs. Sadly the Secretary of State doesn’t seem to be putting the money where her mouth is.