Be careful what you wish for… David Cameron “Saves UIFSM”

Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true!

After months of prevarication about Universal Infant Free School Meals policy, today David Cameron said in the House of Commons today that the Government will ‘be keeping it.’ though he made no mention of how it will be funded.

In Prime Ministers Questions, Cameron said: “I am immensely proud that is was a government I led that introduced this policy {Universal Infant Free School Meals}. I’m proud of what we’ve done and we’ll be keeping it.”

In the blood lust to capitalise on the government’s indecision on the future of universal infant free school meals, opposition MPs blindly prioritised UIFSM above support for other interventions, they ignored the consequences of “Saving” UIFSM, preferring to try and embarrass the PM for political gain.

and it worked. The Prime minister once again deferred to short-term media agenda and crisis management, rather than actual evidence. Around 40,000 signatories, the counsel of a fellow Etonian and the threat of “Dave the dinner snatcher” seem to enough to scare Cameron these days

We should be quite clear, saving UIFSM will not miraculously halt departmental cuts.  Saving one policy from the cutbacks will just deflect the cuts more heavily onto other unprotected DFE budgets. Early years, further education and pupil premium will undoubtedly suffer now UIFSM is staying.

Even worse, because UIFSM is already underfunded and costs are rising, “Saving” UIFSM will eventually harm schools as they are forced to subsidise the policy. John Vincent fell out with ministers when he told the home truth that UIFSM actually needs more money. As Nicky Morgan is forced by number 10 into keeping UIFSM,  do we now expect her to find an extra £200m next year, or will these extra costs just be loaded onto schools to fund from their over-stretched but ring-fenced budgets?

Whilst I have regularly pointed out these obvious consequences, the UIFSM supporters have studiously avoided any mention of the funding. In fact they haven’t engaged at all, no one has put up a defence of their “evidence”, they just scuttle about persuading anyone they can to sign nebulous fact free letters to the times.  Where will these people be when colleges close, when job cuts are announced? Where will they be when schools have sack TAs, in order to top up the funding to pay for the minimum wage rises, where will they be when small schools shut as their costs predictably exceed their subsidy ?

No one should be in any doubt that benefits of UIFSM have been seriously over egged and that good people have been taken in by the hype, misinformation and at times blatant lies of supporters. there are serious vested interests at play and serious money to be made.

The key question to reflect on is does this policy provide value for money? At approaching £850 million next year, the main beneficiaries remain parents who previously paid for school meals (a deadweight cost that simply wouldn’t be acceptable in any other area of education). I haven’t seen anyone suggest UIFSM offers VFM and that is for good reason, it’s an argument that doesn’t stand it up.

They haven’t even bothered researching the benefits, we will never know if the policy makes a difference because no one is monitoring the policy. It’s obscene that we are spending £850,000,000 and no one has even defined what a success is?

Meanwhile we are overwhelmed with stories about children living on poverty who are not entitled to a free school meal, with tales of children going without breakfast and the shocking increase in numbers of children going hungry in holidays. I would contend that these are areas that are in need of funding, that these areas should be a greater priority than UIFSM.

Frank Field put it perfectly “The threat to UIFSM could also give the education secretary a golden opportunity to make better use of her department’s limited resources. Some 1.5 million poor children are currently disqualified from receiving free school meals because their parents claim tax credits to top up their income from low-paid work. Abolishing this penalty would help, in some considerable way, to cement the government’s commitment to ensuring work is the best route out of poverty.”

We shouldn’t be in any doubt this is about priorities, the conservatives are intent on cutting departmental budgets, it is fanciful to imagine the government will somehow find additional money for these other areas of need like holiday hunger AND properly fund UIFSM.

The UIFSM policy brings relatively few benefits for relatively few pupils, we had a small window of opportunity to affect a change, to argue the case for keeping the money in school meals and. to ensure those in greatest need are protected, I doubt very much that will happen now.

I may be old fashioned but i think is perverse that the state pays for the meals of millionaire infants whilst at the next table, older children living in desperate poverty go without. It’s even more perverse that schools and Las be expected to fund the policy from already overstretched budgets and frankly its disgraceful that these consequences were hidden from the public and never openly debated.

Universal free school meals are no panacea, they are not a priority and will drain an overstretched education budget.

Be careful what you wish for……

oliver

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The scandal of Child poverty. Some practical steps we can take to address the issue

Yesterday I watched an Ruth Smeeth MP use the House of Commons Adjournment Debate to raise the issue of Child poverty and holiday hunger. She gave an excellent, impassioned speech, well researched, full of facts to show about how difficult life can be for those poorest and weakest in society, I was suitably impressed that a new MP could do so well, so it was particularly annoying to see her arguments ignored by the minister who didn’t see fit to include anything pertinent about holiday hunger in his response.

She seemed to descend into the trap I sometimes fall, providing all the facts, all the supporting proof and assuming that is enough to win the argument. But as history shows, evidence alone won’t always win you the political argument.

I am therefore finishing off an old blog which takes on the issues raised and offers a way forward, a way of prioritising these children who desperately need our help without asking for new money.

Since publishing the blog, I have become aware of a letter to the Sunday Times, claiming uifsm should be saved due to its impact on child poverty.  I believe this view to be badly misjudged and one that ignores the evidence.  I would encourage any signituaries  to read this blog and put foreard any response they might have in the comments. I don’t bite and am always happy to listen to a different view.

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Child poverty exists 365 days a year, it’s all encompassing and exists across all school year groups in all areas of the country, rural and urban, country or seaside. Poverty is pervasive and endures when schools break up for the weekend or for holidays. It is a stain on our society that so many live in such conditions and it is about to get worse as the latest Tax credit cuts bite.

Some statistics 

Half of all school aged children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals. 

Two-thirds (64 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one member works (This is mainly due to the fact that those eligible for working benefits, like working tax credits, are not eligible for FSM, even though they are living in poverty.)

    Currently around 28% of the countries school children live in poverty.

Of these 15.2% are eligible for free school meals because of parental benefits claims.

This means we have the appalling situation wherea whopping 12.8% of our school population are living in poverty but not receiving a free school meal.

This is the context that drives me to say we need to do more to help these children, to argue this is where we should focus our effort and where we should be investing our time and resources.

Choices

Whatever political allegiances, we are forced to recognise that this government is cutting budgets for both social care and education. Those who think there is a magic money pot that will deliver new funding sources and new policies, need to think again.  Like it or not the Conservatives have a majority and they are going to cut government spending and they are going to cut hard.

We have to be pragmatic, under this government, there simply isnt going to be more money. We cant be idealistic and hold out for any particular policy without understanding that other budgets will get cut as a consequence. That is why there is a urgent need to focus on those in greatest need, for evidence based policy, but also demonstrating value and promoting a positive agenda for change.

Beyond the propaganda

We need to see through the propaganda from the vested interests who promote universal infant free school meals. These supporters will continue to push false arguments and made up statistics, they are desperate to save face and keep the money rolling in, we need to be smarter.

When there isn’t likely to be any other source of funding to feed children. we really need to question if spending £850m on universal infant free school meals is a truly a priority.

The Department for Education are clearly (and rightly) unconvinced the policy offers Value for Money. They don’t see evidence of benefits, they are concerned the costs are spiraling and there are better ways to spend the money. Which makes it the ideal time to nudge them into focusing on those in greatest need. Offer them a strong alternative that will do more good, that will help more pupils and in times of austerity, really bring them bang for their buck.

I know there are people who dream of all children to be given a free school meal, but they must accept that would take up 10% of the education budget, there needs to be realistic expectations of the policies impact and the finances.

Alternatives

We need to think beyond the fact uifsm sounds a nice policy and ask what else could this vast amount be used for?

Children go hungry in school holidays, so why not feed and support them during holidays?

Children arrive at school hungry, so why not properly fund breakfast clubs?

Hundreds of thousands of our children living in poverty are not entitled to a free school meal, we could and should feed them!  A simple change the eligibility criteria for free school meals could include those deemed to be living in poverty. We have the data, we know which benefits they claim, we know who these children are and where they live. FEED THEM!

We cant just bury our heads in the sand, UIFSM has few tangible benefits.  It is already underfunded, many schools already subsidise the cost from teaching budgets. it is a drain on limited resources and yet does very little to help those children in greatest need. As costs continue to rise, unless the government finds yet more money to fund it properly, it will be an even greater drain on even more schools. Just maintaining it as is, will have a devastating knock on effect on early years and FE as to satisfy the Treasury, they get cut instead?

So it is a stark choice, Push to help ALL of our most vulnerable children, or continue with a phenomenally expensive and badly thought through policy whose main beneficiaries are those wealthy enough to afford for a school meal.

I happen to think it is perverse that we continue to feeds the children of millionaires whilst the poorest and weakest go hungry. We need to get our priorities right and fight their corner on those who are in greatest need of our help.

I dont just argue for an end to universal infant free school meals, I argue we use the money to help those actually in need. Those who defend UIFSM above all else, are doing the poorest children a disservice.

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The Conservative conference and its impact of school food (but dont mention UIFSM)

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.

First off was David Cameron’s “all schools will become academies” pronouncement (yes, I know he said it before).

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.

Of course it is classic crass soundbite politics from the PM wannabe, pretending there is an issue and pretending to come up with a solution.(it isnt even anything new)

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.

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Universal Infant Free school meals,  Five Winners and Five losers

Winners

Henry Dimbleby MBE and John Vincent MBE

Hats off to the Leon guys, they ran a near perfect PR campaign to “save school meals”. The masses were galvanised in a collective fight against the evil Tories, signing up en masse to save school meals and prevent the poor from starvation. Only that wasn’t quite as simple as that. Whilst the outrage built at the thought of ending school meals for the poorest, people were actually signing up to save Nick Cleggs universal infant free school meals policy, UIFSM not FSM, a distinction seemingly lost on many and discouraged by few.

It was classic spin over substance, few actual facts but lots of innuendo and artifice. Lots of spurious unsupported claims were rolled through unchecked in today’s 24 hour news cycle. John and Henry used their media nouse, celebrity friends and business partners to push the cause and were exemplary in their use of social media, setting up petitions and paying to promote tweets etc.

But to my mind, their key move, was to specifically target David Cameron. They avoided trying to persuade the DfE with evidence of value for money (mainly because there isn’t any). Instead they played on Cameron’s weakness, his love of headlines over long term policy.  It’s been said before that David Cameron is driven by a short-term media agenda and crisis management, there is no better evidence than the U turn on this policy.  By repeatedly compared ending school meals to “Thatcher the milk snatcher“, supporters knew they would hit a nerve.  Cameron, desperate not to be on the wrong side of this well organised PR barrage, quickly crumbled and “appears” to have committed his government to retaining UIFSM. (I still am not convinced he said it as bluntly as is reported)

In overriding both DfE and the Treasury, Cameron has dug George Osborne a considerable hole. Osborne demands and expects large cuts from each department. Now it seems on the PMs whim, DfE will keep an £850 Million policy it previously planned to cut. It seems unlikely  DfE will make similar savings through cuts to early years or sixth forms, so the costs will now have to be shared around other departments.

Had they not already received MBEs, I would be nominating these Henry and John for a medal.

Big catering firms

Don’t for one second think there aren’t massive vested interests at play in all this. No one should doubt that large amounts of cold hard cash are involved. The big multinational catering firms like Compass, Brakes and their ilk have been pressing hard and pushing to keep this policy in place, not out of altruism, but because it is government backed cash cow for them.

Last year Chartwells made £30 million profit from UIFSM, that’s £160,000 a day, just from infant free school meals.

Not only is it a welcome regular income, but it is essentially a state funded loss leader, DfE subsidising children to get used to school meals.

The smaller caterers are still there but struggle to get the economies of scale that the big boys manage. These big firms can spend as little as 45p on ingredients and still meet the school food standards (where applicable), they cross subsidise and often undercut smaller local firms. Retaining the policy is a massive win for them.

Children whose parents previously couldn’t afford a school meal but didn’t qualify for FSM

This group of children are the real winners. The ones who fall outside the FSM eligibility criteria but whose parents struggle on low incomes, including those officially living in poverty but are working. For three years, these children now get a school meal. It is the undoubted success of the policy that this tranche of Infant pupils benefit.

My question all along is whether universality is the best way of catching this relatively small set of children? Wouldn’t refining the FSM eligibility criteria so as to target those in greatest need of all ages be better, these children would then receive pupil premium and all the other benefits of FSM throughout their school life not just in infants.

Wealthier parents

In pure cash terms, these richer parents are the biggest winners of the whole policy. If you are one of the 35% (ish) of parents who previously paid for your young child’s meals, miraculously the state now does this for you. Saving £437 pa per child, (which is a fair amount of prosecco or a nice ski trip).

Let’s say it as it is, this was an electoral bribe to voters in the lib Dems core demographic, younger middle class parents. Save them some money, publicise the saving relentlessly and hope they are gullible enough to vote Lib Dem on the back of it. It was a targeted tax rebate for those with money and does nothing for the  very poorest, who already received FSM.

Schools with new kitchens 

A relatively small number of schools managed to get funding for new kitchen facilities and whatever happens with the policy, those school kitchens will stay, (unless anyone was daft enough to follow the SFP ridiculous suggestion that they lease a pod for £1000 pm).  The extra investment in facilities should be welcomed.

Losers

Small schools

It has always been known that Smaller schools are particularly vulnerable with any UFSM policy, because of the high costs involved with catering for small numbers. Many small schools are rural  with little if  any choice in providers 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). The extra small school funding has been cut by at least a third and many are really struggling. This was one message I received recently “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 and will put the very existence of some schools at risk, especially given the future costs, (see next section).

This whole situation is not helped by the continued delay of the small school task force report that was promised a year ago.  It seems highly likely that the report is being buried by the SFP because it shows up the dire finances of UIFSM in small schools.

Unless more money is found, We should have  no doubts that the extra burden of UIFSM will be the final straw that closes some of our smaller schools.

Infant Schools

UIFSM was dumped on schools with little notice, using a pricing model that was based on average costs from 2012.  School leaders have spent countless hours working out how to implement the policy, many thousands of pounds buying in equipment and many have lost out as numbers signing up for Pupil premium (FSM), drop off.  

School leaders get on with things, it’s the way they are, but implementing this policy has caused many heads and Governors serious stress and worry and unless the funding increases significantly, the worry will only get worse.

In the noise over saving the policy, few noticed that it is already underfunded and saving it requires extra money. In the reporting of the spat between John Vincent and  Sam Gymnah, This sentence seemed to pass people by, but it is critical in understanding the future of the policy.

One of those at the meeting told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It had not been going long when Mr Vincent suggested there should be a greater taxpayer spend per meal”

In this instance, the Leon boys are quite correct, the ongoing funding needs to rise and central government need to pay.

I know this all sounds like scaremongering, but as schools face a real terms funding cut of around 12%, the government continues to set the ongoing funding for UIFSM at £2.30. This is the average cost of a meal from 2012 and 39p less than the costs encountered by Newham in the 2010 pilot.

Staffing is the single highest cost in school catering, typically taking up 40-50% of any school meal costs. Due to the minimum wage rise announced last year, these staffing costs will go up by around 10% next year, eventualy rising by 38% to £9.00 (for the record I think a living wage is a good thing).

There is no way caterers can absorb that level of costs increase (there will be rises  in national insurance, food and transport costs as well) so the burden will have to be borne by those who pay, either schools or by the government.

The DfE have made it quite clear that they dont see the policy as a priority, only for them to be overridden by the PM.  DfE know there isn’t evidence the policy offers value for money and are already under pressure to make drastic reductions in none ring-fenced departmental spending, so it seems unlikely they will be be prepared to cut other areas like early years or sixth forms just to bankroll the extra costs of providing meals.

This means it is highly likely that burden will be passed onto schools and it is they who will end up paying to subsidise the policy.

A 38% rise in staffing will mean around 35-40p rise in the cost of each school meal.

For a large infant school,  just the additional catering staff will cost around £30,000 a year. That is the budget for a full time teacher from already tight school finances, spent subsidising UIFSM.

This isn’t fiction. Cameron can glory in  saving uifsm, but unless the government commit to properly increase its UIFSM spending, schools will be forced to pay to support the policy. John Vincent knows that and it appears he made sure in the bluntest of  terms that the DFE and ministers are fully aware.

So we have a situation where not only are there hundreds of schools in need of millions in infrastructure, but the ongoing funding is inadequate for many and it getting far worse. We face the serious prospect of schools having to cut staff to fund subsidising free meals.

Local authorities

The majority of LAs spent far far more on infrastructures than they received in the allocation from central government. With LA funding under extreme pressure already, this was the last thing they needed. We had the frankly perverse suggestion from ministers, that LAs should be funded the policy from their schools maintenance pot. Some LAs resorted to only offering support if the schools matched funding, others bit the bullet and spent millions from their education budgets on this, which will have obvious knock on effects for the counties school children.

With LA funding being slashed even further and DfE capital (buildings and schools maintenance) being targeted for savings, Las are really going to struggle to maintain the levels of support they currently provide. On school meals this will likely mean that individual schools are left to replace equipment from their own budgets.  Whilst this doesn’t sound to arduous, it is worth remembering that a commercial oven will cost £10,000 and few schools set money aside or properly depreciate their kitchen equipment.

Sadly many schools don’t have a full grasp of the true cost of their school meal service, they don’t meter gas & electric use, they don’t set aside for replacing equipment and rely on LAs to bail them out. That era of benevolence from LAs appears to have ended.

The Tax Payer

In times of austerity, the tax payer should rightly be looking to receive value for money. We should expect ministers to be prudent, be vigilant and do all they can to ensure our money is spent wisely.

We should remember that around 50% of primary pupils had a school meal prior to the UIFSM launch  (either FSM or paid for by parent). Take up is now averaging out in the 70 -73% range, so the policy only brings new benefit  to 20-23% of infants, that’s around 5% of the total school population, this  at a cost of over £850 million a year.

No one has ever properly argued the UIFSM policy offers value for money.

No one is looking at academic or health outcomes to do a cost benefit analysis

No one knows if this policy is having a positive or negative impact on pupils and there is certainly nothing to suggest it will ever pay for itself.

We don’t monitor the quality of food and adherence to the standards isn’t mandatory for many schools and even if it were, there is no one who checks.

There were never any success criteria laid down for this policy. The only notional target was a presumed 87% take up figure, which incidentally has never been met. With this years changes to the way SATs results are recorded, we will never have a comparable baseline to show any improvements in attainment. Worth noting that there was no real change in attainment in the first year off the policy, despite promises of a dramatic impact.

Basically we are spending the best part of a billion pounds a year on a policy that has no monitoring and no real evidence base to support it.

Future Targeted interventions, Breakfast clubs and Holiday hunger

It now seems highly unlikely that new money will be found to help many of our weakest and most vulnerable children. There was a hope that if UIFSM was dropped, the government could be shamed into replacing the scheme with better more targeted interventions focusing on the poorest pupils. Any hopes seem to have faded dramatically with the prime ministers recent intervention.

As mentioned earlier, there are a small but important minority of children, living in poverty but not eligible for free school meals. This is an issue that has regularly been highlighted and as usual Frank Field MP, puts far more eloquently than I could, “The threat to UIFSM could also give the education secretary a golden opportunity to make better use of her department’s limited resources. Some 1.5 million poor children are currently disqualified from receiving free school meals because their parents claim tax credits to top up their income from low-paid work.

Incredibly the numbers of children living in poverty but not in receipt of FSM and those we feed through the UIFSM policy, are around the same, yet the government choose to prioritise those it deems able to pay, above those in greatest need.
A serious issue facing all schools is that fact many children arrive in the mornings  hungry after missing breakfast.  Whilst it is unheard of for infants to go hungry because they miss a lunch, it is common for children of all ages and backgrounds to come into school hungry and remain so all morning.  The solution is simple and relatively inexpensive; free or subsidised breakfast clubs. They are a fantastic way to combat the most common hunger we see in schools, but sadly I hold out little hope that breakfast clubs will now be properly funded and extended by the government.
School holidays are an incredibly tough time for some families. Children who receive school meals often go hungry in school holidays.  I know some will bleat about bad parenting, but unfortunately some people live chaotic lives and sadly and often it’s the children who are left to suffer. We shouldn’t shy away from the fact that by supporting families on the breadline through holidays, we are directly improving the health and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable in society. By involving school we also keep up the link with education that can so often be lost

I had a genuine hope that the government could be convinced to find a few million pounds to set up and properly support national holiday hunger programs, that seems increasingly unlikely now.

I remain amazed that we are in a situation where the state pays to feed the children of millionaires and we prioritise that policy above feeding children living below the poverty line.

Note

The figures on take up are approximated because there are no hard figures available.

The last take upfigure prior to UIFSM was 46.3% though there was a significant upward trend.

The average take up (as opposed to the wildly distorted census data) appears to be around 70-75%, the best source is compass, the biggest caterers in the world, who claim 73% take up for UIFSM

  

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The fight to save Universal Infant Free school meals is the wrong fight to have

Cuts, cuts and more cuts

Like it or not the education budget is being cut.

Once you get your head round that as a fact, your perspectives should change.

The Tories were elected fair and square and seem determined to pursue a policy of fiscal tightening and the education budget will be one of those hit. No ifs or buts, DfE funding is being cut. I don’t like it any more than the next man, I didn’t vote for them, but we are where we are and they have a mandate and enough MPs, so these cuts will happen.

Where will the education cuts fall

It has been clear that the actual schools spending will remain ring-fenced as “flat cash per pupil”, even so there will be a 12% real terms cut in school budgets as NI, pay and pension increases hit.

So we have to look to the none-ring-fenced education spending to see where the cuts will fall.  This includes UIFSM, early years, pupil premium, sixth form, higher education and free schools, (but if you think the conservatives are going to cut free schools, you probably need some medication)

So the dfe have the unenviable job of prioritising where they will find savings from a fairly restricted list, all of whom have strong cases for continued levels of funding.

The true cost of UIFSM is rising,

One of the problems facing UIFSM is that it is actually underfunded at the moment. Schools are actively subsidising the scheme, there are hundreds of schools who need millions invested in new infrastructure but are left to struggle on.. there are many schools with meal costs above £2.30, who are left to find the money from somewhere, there simply isn’t enough cash going into UIFSM as it stands

But it is going to get worse, changes to the national minimum wage will have a disproportionate impact on low paid catering staff. Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted the minimum wage has gone up. But that cost will have to be passed on, as will all the extra infrastructure and equipment costs as well as those from an increased pupil roll. So the question is, who will end up paying?

If we retain UIFSM, are we seriously expecting the government  will put in the hundreds of millions in extra funding needed or will the shortfall be passed down to schools leaving them to fill the gap and subsidise the policy from other budgets.

The government has shown its hand already in the way it cut the small school transitional funding, leaving many small schools in a perilous state, they are having to take thousands or pounds from teaching budgets to pay for the statutory requirement to provide UIFSM. Unless UIFSM funding rises, this will inevitably become the norm.

Is UIFSM worth saving?

People throw up lots of reasons to save UIFSM, mostly anecdotal, few if any stand up to scrutiny, but they all are dwarfed by the elephant in the room, there is no evidence UIFSM on its own makes a difference to children’s education.

I cant stress this enough, there is no evidence UIFSM on its own makes a difference to children’s education or their health.

This inevitably puts the DFE in an awkward position, as there are clear benefits for many other competing alternatives. Whilst only around 400,000 children are benifiting from the uifsm policy.

So in simple terms people are fighting for a scheme that actually takes money from schools, that will cost more and has no evidence of any benefit or that it offers value for money.

I would say in any cost benefit analysis, you are on to a loser!

We should fight, but for the right thing

Don’t get me wrong, I love fighting for a cause, I am certainly not one to give up easily, but I am also pragmatic and look at the bigger picture in all this.

Which is why I argue that people should accept the deficiencies in the case for UIFSM and spend their energy fighting for something better to come along after and replace it.

I understand those with vested interests want the policy to continue, i.e. Chartwells made £30m from uifsm last year, but economics  isn’t a good enough reason to continue.

I believe we should focus on targeting support for those in greatest need.  Look at improving the support for those facing holiday hunger, expand breakfast clubs, promote strategies to combat obesity, automate FSM entitlement improve the quality of school meals and take up. All these could be done with the money saved and would have significant benefits.

We should accept UIFSM for what it is, a poorly thought through Lib Dem election bribe, recognise that it is actually sucking money from teaching and learning and will need even more cash. We should then give some thought to what should replace it and push for the savings to be invested back in the front line rather than wasting time defending the indefensible.

If you gave an infant teacher £13000, how many would spend it all paying for the lunches of every one of the class mates, regardless of need?

As a footnote, if you do think UIFSM is defensible in some way, show me the evidence, it’s all I ask.

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My quick response to the School afood Plan letter in The Times

With the prospect of the Tories killng off the Lib Dems universal free school meals, the School Food Plan engeneered yet another one of their usual stunts  producing yet another an open letter before pestering a small number of the countries 16000 headteachers to sign.

Like so many of the outpourings of the school food plan of late, this letter smacks of desperation, it is high on innuendo  and exageration and low on accuracy and evidence, it’s spin over substance.

Probably best to go through it all paragraph by paragraph

“AS HEAD TEACHERS we believe strongly that the introduction of universal infant free school meals last September was a visionary step by government to ensure access to a hot, nutritious school meal every day.

The main implication seems to be that prior to universal infant free school meals launch, children didn’t have access to school meals, which is simply not true, the key difference under this “visionary “policy is that the state now pays for infant meals rather than the parents.

It’s also quite clear that not all children have been able to access Hot or Nutritious meals under this policy.  There is no mention of HOT in the legislation and no requirement to provide hot meals, indeed there are schools still having cold food 

The evidence is this has significantly more nutritional value than an average packed lunch. It is already helping children to learn better and to develop good eating habits and to try new foods. We are sure these habits will provide benefits longer term, helping to address issues such as obesity and improving health into adulthood.”

The argument that school meals are more nutritional simply doesn’t stand up. We no longer measure nutritional values as we have changed to food based standards meaning there is nothing to stop Turkey twisslers appearimg on dinner plates. And because the new food standards don’t apply to around 4000 academies, the regulations on healthy food only apply to four in ten children.There is NO evidence Universal free school meals on their own will improve children’s progress!

There is NO evidence universal free school meals  alone improves health and well-being!

Is that clear enough? 

The evidence base is deliberately  muddied by the way the letter shifts from the UIFSM policy to a “good hot lunch”  they decide not to mention  the 46+ (and rising) percent of children who had meals prior to the policy introduction who obviously recieve absolutely no new benefit from this policy. They are trying to imply significant benefits without any evidence at all.

Whilst we may see changes in eating habits, UIFSM is an enormously expensive way to gain relatively minor improvements for such a  small minority. UIFSM is not the only way to introduce new foods or to educate children on food and  it is preposterous to suggest everything happens before year three and that there are not cheaper, better value alternatives that could work throughout a school life.

It also is worth noting that  the school food plan are trying to jump on the bandwagon of the next big issue and tie the policy in to the fight against obesity, but unfortunately, they can’t get away from the fact the pilot found no change in BMI. Their claims are nothing more than speculation and wishful thinking.

“The setting up of UIFSM was certainly quite a challenge for many schools and caterers.  But this hard work has been done, the investments have been made and we believe the benefits of these free school meals for all infant children far outweigh any decision to cut back funding or worse to disband with the programme altogether.  Recent surveys show that close to 90% of children are taking up the offer of free school meals and 95% of parents see the value of their children having a proper meal in school. “

Talk of hard work being done and complete is totally outrageous.  Of over 700 who applied for extra money last year, only 123 were successful. Hundreds of schools are still in need of additional infrastructure work. Schools up and down the country are still struggling in inappropriate and ill equipped kitchens and halls..  This is a deliberate ploy to suggest everything is fine and there isn’t the need for additional spending.

It is interesting that they “believe” the benefits of the policy outweigh the costs, rather than post eny facts. In these days of evidence based policy, surely we need some actual evidence of what the benefits are, we need look at some kind of cost benefit analysis to ensure the policy offers value for money. Unfortunately for uifsm supporters, the pilot was unable to state universal free school meals offered value for money even though the cost base was only £220 POA Per child around half the current £437 cost.

Now I come to the most blatant and deliberately misleading part of the letter, the suggestion that close to 90% of children are taking up the offer of free school meals.

Government statistics show the figure on census day to be 86%, however that is nowhere near a true reflection on regular take up.  Schools are paid for the numbers “taking a meal” on census day, they are incentivised to boost numbers with cold hard cash. This is why we see census day special menus, but its not just schools who manipulate the figures, the government instruct schools to include absent children in the figures because the coalition wanted it to appear more successful.

If you want the true number of children eating school meals you could do worse that look at the numbers stated by Compass, the world’s largest catering firm and one of England’s largest school meal provides, their sample size is enormous and rather than 86% they claim 73% take up. This figure is reinforced by the stats of Portsmouth who have 84% in the census but state an average of 70% and West Berkshire 82%  again claiming a regular take up of 70%. Leading anyone with any sense, to the conclusion that there is a 12-14% difference between the census and reality, ie if like Slough, you have 78% on census day, the regular take up percentage will likely be in the mid 60s.

These figures are of great importance because prior to uifsm school meals take up been moving up towards those figures anyway, the blue line in this graph shows the trend, it is also worth noting that Bolton Council managed a genuine 70% take up by increasing subsidies and cutting costs.

“As Headteachers, we believe that, for all its initial challenges, the hardest work has now been done.  It is now time to commit to embedding this programme more fully into schools and to ensure all our children receive a hot, healthy school meal every day.”

Its obvious to anyone involved on the ground that there is plenty of work still to do. Many schools and LAs are subsidising the policy from other budgets and have nothing in reserve should any equipment go wrong. This policy is a drain on resources, particularly of small schools as many have costs well in excess of the £2.30 ongoing funding (the school food plan people might have bbeen better off publishing the long overdue small school taskforce report rather than penning another inaccurate letter and lobbying heads to sign it). 

One of the main reasons the policy is under threat is the fact everyone knows that it will need even more money both for infrastructure and as ongoing costs increase. There is a lack of monitoring or evaluation to show this money is worth spending which makes it doubley  difficult to justify the expenditure.

I am not against school food or free meals in any way, we should of course have a safety net for the poorest and weakest in society, indeed I beleeive the qualifying criteria should be expanded and applied to all age groups. We should be also be concentrating on providing good quality food, promoting it to parents as value for money. 

But we certainly should not be fooled into thinking this letter is all it seems, those with a vested interest in school meals desperately want the scheme to carry on despite the lack of evidence it is beneficial to schools or children. Chartwells made £30million out of universal free school meals last year. With those kind of profits, you can be sure we will see many more supportive letters fighting to have the policy remain in place.

When schools face real term cuts in their budgets, this policy is a luxury we simply can’t justify. This letter does nothing to further the case.

Some simple questions for the heads

Where is the evidence that the policy offers value for money,what improvements in progress, in  health benefits should we see in return for the £800,000,000 spent last year?

How many heads would choose to spend £13,000 per class on meals if they had a say in the matter? How many will put their money where their mouth is, if/when the policy is scrapped?

Do they really think that the state taking over paying for the meals of wealthier pupils really offers value for money?

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The future of UIFSM under a Conservative government

With the political landscape looking so very different to a week ago, a number of people have been soliciting my views on the future of Universal Infant Free School Meals.

Whilst no one can foretell exactly what will happen, undoubtedly the most important factor is the demise of David Laws, the architect of the UIFSM policy, who along with most of his Lib Dem colleagues, was unceremoniously dumped by the electorate. His influence over the DfE will soon dissipate, a temporary yellow blip, as a renewed vigour for austerity and a marked shift to the right, takes hold of government.

The policy aims were laudable, if somewhat vague. The lack of evidence, the dearth of planning and the lack of thought, alongside repeated underestimation of the true costs involved, simply created chaos in the system.  Russell Hobby was correct when he recently suggested schools “rescued the government from its own mistakes” by making “bad ideas succeed”, of this, there is no better example than UIFSM.

The story so far

So we are left asking the question, will the Conservatives support the UIFSM policy in the future?

Perhaps the best way to know is to look at their historic interest.

There has always been an undercurrent of disquiet about the policy on the Tory right. Many Conservatives arguing for greater parental responsibility, sceptical of the nanny state and balking at the cost being borne by tax payers.

I have been assured by the authors of the school food plan that the then Secretary of State, Michael Gove, supported universal free school meals in principle, but he took the view that it could not be a priority. As such, universal free school meals was the only one of the plans seventeen recommendations to be rejected.

Under Nicky Morgan’s reign, most new financing came from existing UIFSM allocations. There was a less than impressive £20 million found by George Osbourne in this year’s budget, but £20M hardly smacks of a government with wild enthusiasm for a policy.

The delay in publishing the small school pilot (due last November) may well be a sign that ministers, civil servants and proponents of UIFSM are aware that the policy is in trouble. Surely if the report contained good news, it would have been pushed out prior to the election? 

But I suspect most significant is the fact that the UIFSM was only ever funded for two years, a clear indication as far as I am concerned that Conservatives were never fully on board and ensured they had a get out.

There are reasons the policy might continue, the authors of the SFP will no doubt try and persuade DfE to carry on, as will the caterers and support organisations, who have a vested interest in continuation (some caterers have invested significantly on the back of UIFSM). But, with schools having to absorb funding cuts of over 12%, it seems likely the policy will become as much a victim of the election as the party who conceived it and struggled through a troublesome and often painful delivery.

I believe it would be obscene to see SEN provision cut, teachers sacked and schools going bust whilst we continue to spend money feeding children whose parents can well afford to pay for a meal. As far as I can see, ending the policy is a no brainer, the only real issue is the timing of the revocation. Do ministers strike quickly, before too many parents get used to the policy or do they wait?

When not if

I would suggest the sensible option would be to end the policy next summer, as the funding is already agreed and in place to the end of the 2016 school year. Ending UIFSM provision will also need time to make changes to the children’s act, because of the way the policy was implemented. These legal technicalities mean it is unlikely there could be any phased withdrawal, it’s all or nothing.

This timeframe also opens up the possibity of taking a leaf from the Lib Dem manifesto and commissioning an investigation in to the UIFSM policy. Depending on the terms of reference and without prejudging the outcome, finding the policy isn’t living up to the lib dem promises could well provide cover for ending the policy. After all no one seriously argues it offers value for money or that it is sustainable with the current levels of funding.  My prediction is a series of briefings against the policy, building up to a report showing it isn’t providing value, with a fig leaf of addressing holiday hunger, to soften the blow.

Positives to be found

There are positives to be had, we should never lose sight of the fact the school food plan has been a massive boost to the profile of school food. We have seen new targeted investment into school kitchens, training and professional standards for staff and the recent focus on quality will undoubtedly make a difference so long as it is maintained. Sadly (and disgracefully in my view) the lack of research will mean we will never properly know if the experiment was a success or not.

I would hope we can move on and concentrate on alternative solutions to some of the issues highlighted by the policy. None of these proposals cost  significant sums and all will help in a far more targeted way.

  • We urgently need to automate the system for registering pupil onto free school meals.
  • Parents need reassurance that FsM children are not identified, address the perceived stigma.
  • Food Quality needs to improve, parents need to see the school meal as healthy and value for money
  • We should consider expanding Fsm entitlement to all children living in poverty, this would include those whose parents claim WTC, who don’t currently qualify for free meals
  • Breakfast clubs should be funded and widespread, this will not only help the poorest but will support working parents
  • The support on offer for children on FsM during holiday times needs a step change, it is unacceptable that children are going hungry in the holidays.

With the inevitable cuts in education budgets, now is a time to get the best out of every pound given to schools.  UIFSM costs £13100 per class, I suspect most people now accept that giving every child free food is not the best use of that money, let’s just hope the money saved, remains in education.

In conclusion

It’s hard to get away from the thought that Universal Infant Free school meals was the wrong policy, at the wrong time and that it was done for the wrong reasons. I believe it is a matter of “when” not “if” the policy is revoked, the best we can hope for is that the money saved is reinvested back into schools and not syphoned off.

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