Queens Park Infants, the beginning of the end?

On Tuesday, a couple of miles away from my home, Queens Park Infant Academy sent a letter home, informing parents they were ending all their hot meals provision.

“By moving to a cold lunch service we can cut our staffing costs dramatically”

“The money we receive from the Government for free school meals does not cover all our current staffing cost of providing hot meals”

The school can’t be any clearer, ultimately the decision was forced on them by a lack of financial support from the government.

Given the funding level has remained static at £2.30 whilst costs have risen significantly, decisions like this will become increasingly common.  It can’t be a surprise that shortfalls like these occur when the government set the subsidy at the average cost of meals from 2012.

I appreciate this blog is in danger of becoming little more than my repeating the same messages, but surely people can see there is now evidence that it is an issue for all schools? Queen’s Park may be the first large school to go public with its concerns, but it’s clear that other larger schools face similar financial challenges. Ministers can no longer simply pretend it’s a problem that only impacts a few small schools.

As one very well placed insider once said to me “Funding formula is wrong and current DfE too stupid and stubborn to fix it”

How widespread is this issue?

Sadly, even in these austere times, I believe many schools don’t know how much electric, gas or water they spend on UIFSM, few factor in increased equipment depreciation or maintenance. Some may recognise the extra staffing costs involved with serving up the meals, not least because of the recent NI and pension increases along with a significant rise in the minimum wage, but many believe they must persevere with hot meals.

The surprise for me, is that it has taken so long for a school to go public. If Queens Park with 380 pupils can’t afford to serve Chartwells hot meals for £2.30, how are schools with similar costs managing?

Are they managing or are they actually (perhaps unknowingly) diverting funds and subsidising the meals?

How long can this kind of subsidy continue?

But David Cameron saved the policy?

As so often with David Cameron, he ignored the minor issues of working out the finances before opening his mouth.  He made a commitment to keep UIFSM, relishing in the fact people wouldn’t call him Dave the Dinner snatcher in PMQs any more, without giving any real thought to how it will be paid for. (UIFSM cost £600m, we subsequently saw a £600m cut to the ESG)

The Prime Minister took the decision to “Save” universal free school meals, to the great delight of Catering firms who campaigned to preserve the UIFSM policy, ensuring their “financial bonanza” would continue. (The term “financial bonanza” was used to describe UIFSM by no less than Myles Bremner of the School Food Plan, who knows a thing about financial bonanzas after his firm was given £5000 a week by DfE).

What next?

The PM might not grasp the finances, but be in no doubt, DfE have long understood that the £2.30 funding wasn’t enough (I now know they read my blogs, but that’s another story), but their apathy towards this Lib Dem policy means since the end of the coalition, they have shown no interest in doing anything to help.

It will be fascinating to see how DfE play this now.  They must know the steady drip of bad press will increase. Sadly we know from other news stories about the lack of school funding, the DfE instinct is to stick their fingers in their ears, sing La La La and pretend it will all go away. But they also know this is one story that won’t be allowed to disappear.

I can’t make this any simpler

If DfE are going to persevere with the UIFSM policy, they need to increase both the ongoing and capital funding, if they don’t the education of our children will suffer.

I can understand John Vincent resorting to the F word when telling Sam Gyimah the policy needed more cash. Someone in the DFE has to grow some bollocks and either find the money to properly fund the policy or cut the pretense and dump it!

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