In today’s Guardian, Warwick Mansell wrote a small piece about the ongoing UIFSM funding. He was basically highlighting the fact the figure of £2.30 was sneaked out in an obscure EFA e-bulletin just before Christmas.
What I found shocking and depressing was the disingenuous DfE response. A spokesman for the DfE said: “We decided that the fairest way to continue to programme was to keep the existing rate of £2.30 per meal, found to be the average cost of providing a primary school meal.”
Firstly, £2.30 was the average cost of providing a primary school meal back in 2012!
Secondly how is keeping 2016-17 funding at a mean level from 2012 in any way fair?
To be clear £2.30 was the 2011-12 mean cost (pg 39) for providing primary school meals (please note this was the cost of producing the meal, not what parents pay) and being the average cost means many primaries will have paid more. Sadly the 2011-12 report on school meals was the last one available, as Michael Gove cut the Children’s Food Trust funding and it is no longer able to conduct it’s extremely useful annual survey.
But this isn’t the only evidence that £2.30 is an inadequate amount. In the UIFSM pilot, Newham started with a cost of £2.59 in 2009 rising to £2.63 in 2011. (pg 126), even in the school food plans own evidence, 5 out of 47 primary schools had production costs above £2.30. More recently school food plan author John Vincent “suggested there should be a greater taxpayer spend per meal” to school meals minister Sam Gyimah, before having a bit of a swear (which all seemed reasonable enough too me), so there is no doubt at all that DfE know this 2012 funding level is leaving some schools out of pocket.
Whilst we have seen a period of low inflation, Food prices have still increased, utility bills have risen and in April we have a significant rise in the national minimum wage. All of these add inflationary pressures to school meal prices and whilst some of this will be mitigated by economies of scale and optimising working practices, many schools will face an substantial increase in their costs above and beyond the governments £2.30 funding. The scale of this problem is unknown, but i suspect it will be a significant number, sadly (or fortunately) no one is collating and publishing the figures.
One thing is certain, some schools are being forced into subsidising the policy from other budgets and their children are losing out as a result.
So how can it be described as “the fairest way” when these costs must be borne by schools rather than the DFE? In the long list of crass DfE PR, describing the dumping of costs onto schools as “fair” takes some beating. It only seems “Fair” if you are hidden away from reality in the DfE and don’t have to find any extra money to pay for the UIFSM policy the Prime Minster surprised everyone by saving. Its only fair if you only care about overall DfE spending staying within George Osborne’s austerity constraints and don’t consider the impact on individual infant school budgets. its only fair if you are intent on transferring as much of the policy cost away from DfE as possible.
By keeping the funding at 2012 levels, DfE are avoiding any semblance of fairness. The fairest way involves providing an adequate level of policy funding so schools are not out of pocket. DfE know full well that retaining 2012 rates and under funding a statutory policy, is most definitely unfair.