Government guidance suggesting that schools should not apply for funding to cover extra costs – including meal voucher schemes – if they expect an increasing surplus this year has been branded "wrong" and "unfair".
The Department for Education has said it does "not expect" schools to make a claim for extra free school meals (FSM) costs triggered by the coronavirus crisis if they anticipate adding to their reserves in the 2020-2021 financial year.
But the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL), a leading body of school bursars and business managers, has argued that it would be "wrong" and "counterintuitive" to penalise schools that have "got their financial ducks in a row".
Coronavirus: Frustration over free meal vouchers grows
Background: Vouchers for FSM pupils backed by DfE
The DfE has set aside funding for schools facing additional expenses associated with the coronavirus outbreak, including the provision of free school meals for children not attending school during the lockdown.
Coronavirus: Call for clarity on free school meals funding
Schools can either make their own local arrangements for FSM, which the DfE says will be reimbursed, or use the government's national voucher scheme.
However, while the national scheme is pre-paid, the DfE has said that schools making their own arrangements will need to apply for their costs to be covered – prompting concerns over eligibility.
The news comes as headteachers and school business managers today expressed frustration over continuing delays to free school meals vouchers being approved through the government's national scheme.
Stephen Morales, ISBL chief executive, told Tes that it would be "wrong" for schools to miss out on additional funding because they expect to run a greater surplus this year.
"The suggestion was that if you were going to be adding to reserves this year, that you should be looking at those reserves before coming to the department," he said.
"I think if schools have healthy reserves and they can’t demonstrate they’ve got clear plans for those reserves, then when things are tight and the Treasury is having to find money for all sorts of things, I think it’s right that we take the responsible position as a sector.
"However, if you’ve done the right thing – so if you have worked really hard to make sure that resources are managed carefully; that you’ve got structures in place which are appropriate for the size of your organisation; and you are deploying leadership in the right way…and you’ve planned for the next three years, as we’re asked to do…then in those circumstances – if there’s a clear plan for the funds that have been put aside – I think it would be wrong to penalise those schools.
He added that if schools were "doing everything right, it feels slightly counterintuitive to then penalise their schools if they’ve got their financial ducks in a row".
He added that, if schools are planning ahead and making sure their approach to resource management and deployment is "robust", then "there’s a strong case to say it’s unfair for us to then have to concede that core ground that we've made up".
Mr Morales also said that "further clarity" is needed on how the DfE is defining "reserves".
"Reserves are categorised anyway, so there are restricted and unrestricted reserves, and again it would be quite useful to know exactly what is meant there," he said.
"And there are some reserves which are destined for capital projects, so just to say 'reserves' without any qualification is not helpful."
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The department has published guidance saying that schools will be able to claim back costs incurred in providing free school meals before the introduction of the national voucher scheme and where the national scheme is ‘inappropriate’ – for example, if there is no locally participating supermarket.
"This appears to us to mean that schools should be entitled to reimbursement for the costs involved in locally arranged schemes as necessary and that this would cover the current period in which there are problems in accessing the national scheme.
"However, we are seeking confirmation from the Department for Education that this is the case, and we think that it would be helpful if it provided absolute clarity about exactly what costs it will cover."
A DfE spokesperson said: "We are providing extra funding to schools, on top of existing budgets, to cover unavoidable costs incurred due to the coronavirus outbreak that cannot be met from their existing resources.
"This includes local arrangements set up by schools to support children not attending school who are eligible for free school meals, where our national voucher scheme is not appropriate."
The department added that it would provide more details on the claims process when it launches in June.