And so it’s come to pass, 4.25 on a Friday afternoon, last working day of the month, DfE quietly publish their latest guidance for universal free school meals. I tweeted the news at 5.08, it was picked up by schoolsweek whose journalists did lots of digging and eventually confirmed my worst fears. It won’t surprise anyone who has followed my blogs that the extra funding for small schools has been cut. DfE didn’t even have the grace to mention they were making the cut to the funding and that this particular funding stream wouldn’t exist in 2016/17. (The support service was cut earlier on in the year)
“29 January 2016 4:25pm.
Removed information about the UIFSM support service because it has been discontinued. Added information about the 2016 to 2017 academic year.”
To give a better idea as to why this small schools funding is so important, this is what the school food plan said; “Small schools face even greater challenges in delivering great school meals than their larger counterparts. With less students to serve, economies of scale are tougher to come by. Many are primaries or located in hard to reach rural areas, often without full kitchens on site.” “Small schools who serve less than a hundred meals a day seldom break even, because of the fixed costs of catering in each school”
There are almost 4000 schools with less than 150 pupils, it isn’t scaremongering to say that losing the extra funding will have a massive detrimental impact as these schools are forced to subsidise their meal provision from other budgets. We should be in no doubt, this cut will cost people their jobs.
This article by Myles Bremner discussing the small school taskforce report (which I am currently fighting to have released), gives an idea of the report contents and perhaps explains why publication might be embarrassing, especially given this latest funding cut.
“an ongoing small schools subsidy should be given to those schools serving fewer than 100 meals a day. The £2,300 additional UIFSM subsidy funding announced for schools with fewer than 150 pupils for 2015-16 is welcome news for small schools; but this will not cover all meal costs in some schools. The P&L for the pilot schools showed that meals for small schools could cost an additional 17p-36p per meal served; without any additional subsidy, this would lead to an annual loss.”
Many of these small schools struggle to find a caterer who will offer them at a meal for £2.30, but it is a legal requirement to provide meals to all infants. The schools don’t have a choice in the matter, so even with the extra £2300 some schools were struggling to find any provision, never mind break even. (see note 1). For a school of 50 children (quite common in my county of Dorset), finding £2300 from other already stretched budgets will be impossible. I genuinely believe it could be the final straw that means some schools, many of whom are already borderline viable, will be forced to make redundancies and eventually close down.
DFE can pretend this was never supposed to be a permanent funding stream, but everyone involved understands that this money is the only way UIFSM can be viable in small schools.
Since publicising the cuts, I received a number of messages on this subject, i had caterers an heads pointing out “It won’t be enough to cover costs”, “Heartbroken for children, schools, staff etc. Lots to lose jobs as well as hungry children” “currently use grant to cover costs of staff, transport, utilities and equipment & avoid taking from T&L funding.” “We have to pay for our meals to be transported from our supply kitchen, making a significant loss.” “Our contractor say only way to reduce costs is reduce staff hours or quality of ingredients.”
Jeanette Orrey MBE ( who worked on the school dinners program with Jamie Oliver) tweeted ”16 years forward 4 years back where is the stability for children catering teams schools”. She went on to publish this strongly worded statement. Reminding everyone “The government knew from the outset that many small schools would struggle to deliver UIFSM without appropriate support.”
Linda Cregan of the Children’s food trust, put out an equally forthright view in her statement “UIFSM is a legal requirement and its funding must be sufficient to make sure every child gets a good meal”
Perhaps one of the most interesting responses was from Russell Hobby of NAHT, who has always been a supporter of the policy.
“I like the idea of feeding children. But the purpose of a school is first to educate children. If some schools are not getting economies of scale in any case, would we not be better off abandoning this scheme in those schools and going back to the original plan of giving free meals only to those who cannot afford them? Alternatively, if this is a policy priority for the government, it could fund its policy appropriately. Currently it is forcing schools to make sacrifices to deliver conflicting aims. Forgive this last line given the context but the government cannot have its cake and eat it.”
Meanwhile Henry Dimbleby was altogether more sanguine about the funding cut, tweeting “it’s going to be ok.” In reply to one caterers concern over her future.
Noticeable by his absence, is Myles Bremner, who as a director of the School food plan, is now in charge of the day to day business of the SFP. His firm, Bremner & Bremner are paid £1000 a day by DfE, so it will be interesting to see if we get our money’s worth when he eventually responds.
So there we have it, Dfe saving itself £10m, a contentious report is being buried and a government brazenly ignored the conclusion, meanwhile small schools face rising costs and need this extra funding more than ever.
Time for DFE to decide, ditch the policy, find more money or watch small schools close?
Many small schools are rural with little if any choice in providers and 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). This was one message I received “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. I know a mid size caterer in a rural area who charges schools £2.40 (so schools are already finding an extra 10p a meal), but they have dropped a number of the smaller and more isolated schools, because it simply isn’t financially viable for them to drive 10 miles each way to drop off 20 meals. None of the larger caterers will go anywhere near these schools, Local Authorities no longer run in house catering that tend to cross subsidise and support these schools and given the latest cuts in local government funding, few have the funds to provide new kitchens, which would run at a loss anyway. These schools just seem to have been hung out to dry.