Up and down the country, school leaders are finalising their budgets. It sounds simple and straight forward, but this year everyone is finding it incredibly difficult to balance the books.
Spare a thought then for the thousands of smaller primary schools who face the particular hardship inflicted by the universal infant free school meals policy. My veiws on the policy are well documented, as are my struggles with DfE to publish the Small School Taskforce report that shows smaller schools need extra financial support. Despite this the government cut the grant, meaning many school now face a shortfall on their catering provision.
I have been asked by a number of Head teachers and Governors about the legal position and for advice to help about their predicament. Sadly there is no official help any more (that was cut as well), nor is there any easy solution.
Schools have a legal requirement to offer free school meals to all their reception, year 1 and year 2 pupils.
Subject to meeting this legal duty, schools may spend any excess funds for the purposes of the school; that is to say for the educational benefit of pupils registered at that school.
For each meal taken by an eligible pupil the school currently receives £2.30. DfE assume pupils take 190 school meals over an academic year, this equals £437 per pupil PA.
DfE calculate the allocation using the number of pupils recorded as taking a meal in the October and January school censuses, they then subtract those pupils known to be eligible for FSM in the same censuses who are taking a meal. This figure is then divided by 2 to give the average number of eligible UIFSM pupils.
Areas to note
The payments are based on the numbers “taking a meal” on the 2 census days. How many take a meal on other days is inconsequential to the funding calculations.
Schools only have an obligation to “offer” a meal.
Any surplus funding can be spent by the school, however it likes (within reason).
Optimising your income
I would strongly recommend that schools do absolutely everything in their powers to ensure that the take up on the census days is as close to 100% as they can get it. Offer incentives, special menus, plan celebration or international days, really pull out the stops. Don’t be afraid to explain the situation to parents and invite them in. Every extra child is going to boost your income by £437, so I can’t stress this enough, on those two days, every infant child in school should be “taking a meal”.
Understand your meal costs
Many schools inadvertently subsidise the policy, they don’t account for water, electric, gas, consumables. Few will depreciate their equipment even though it is under increasing stress. I would advise any school leaders to drill down and ensure they list and understand the true costs of implementing the policy in their school.
Schools get £2.30 per meal, regardless of how much the meal actually costs them (that was the mean cost of a primary school meal in 2012).
If you are a big 360 pupil infants, with everyone signed up on census day, you will receive £157,320 PA
With economies of scale, you could well be paying £2.00 (or less) per meal resulting in a net “profit” of £20,520, to spend on pupils.
Conversely, if you are a small school, you will inevitably have higher costs (and dfe know this)
A small school with 50 eligible children, will likely have meal costs of £2.80 (and higher), this equates to a loss of £4,750 just on the meal provision.
To be blunt, that money has to come from somewhere within the school budget.
Now comes the difficult bit.
In simple terms, schools need to game the system. I have already explained how to boost income, schools must now consider how they can cut expenditure whilst still complying with the legal requirements.
A school just has a duty to “Offer” a meal. It is then up to the parent if that offer is taken up.
I would therefor suggest to any school faced with having to subsidise the UIFSM provision, write to parents, explaining the situation. Be blunt, point out that not only are small schools facing the same well publicised hardships other schools face, but that they are being forced to subsidise the children’s meals. Highlight how the meals are not free, the cost is to their children’s education and it is putting the school at risk as the funding level is unsustainable.
Obviously those on FSM as a safety net should always be fed as a priority, but there is nothing to stop schools asking those who can afford it, to bring in packed lunches or to make a “donation” (so long as it’s not a charge for the meals).
Normally I would say the worst thing that could happen is some parent goes to the press and kicks up a fuss. In this instance it will just go to highlight the schools plight and the difficult position small schools are being placed in.
Most nationals are at best agnostic to UIFSM, the Mail have regularly riled against the UIFSM policy, whilst papers like the Guardian, TES and Schoolsweek have regularly published stories that paint struggling schools in a good light. I would expect any press coverage will draw in local MPs and raise the profile of the issues, even more so with an election due. It will be far more embarrassing for the ministers who cut desperately needed funding, than it will be for schools doing their best to manage.
I am suggesting that small schools consider complying with the letter of the law, but ignore the spirit.
UIFSM is a shambolic policy, don’t let it ruin your school.