Every pound spent on Nick Clegg’s plan to build extra kitchens and dining rooms in primary schools will be money not spent on “stopping schools falling down”, a Department for Education (DfE) source has said.
The deputy prime minister announced yesterday that primary schools will receive an extra £150m to build new kitchens in order to meet demand for the extension of free school meals for all infants next year.
The extra money is to be brought in on top of £450m earmarked for 2014-15 and £635m in 2015-16, which will fund free school meals to all infants in reception and Years 1 and 2.
The announcement was meant to be a key Lib Dem policy put out ahead of today’s Autumn Statement, and according to Mr Clegg, was to be part-funded by an £80m underspend within the DfE.
But DfE insiders have called the notion that an underspend exists as “absurd” and added that the money will have to be taken from existing capital budgets, which contain funds for vital school rebuilding and refurbishment works.
Speaking to TES, a DfE source said: “'The idea there are capital underspends in DfE is absurd. Every pound spent on Clegg's kitchens will mean a pound not spent on stopping schools falling down.”
The issue has led to a bitter row developing between the DfE and the Cabinet Office, with the Lib Dems accusing Michael Gove’s department of going “rogue”.
According to the BBC, a senior Lib Dem source said the Whitehall department should “stop whining”.
“The DfE are going rogue," the source said. "This has been agreed at the highest levels of government. It has been agreed by the chancellor.
“The DfE are hostile to ideas which are not their own. They are lying if they say the money isn't there. There is an underspend which will go partly to free schools, partly to school meals."
Mr Clegg’s announcement has been widely welcomed, but the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) warned that the money should not come at the expense of other schools.
“Hunger makes it hard for children to learn, so this should help. And it will help children learn the social skills of eating together, which too many don’t do at home,” ATL general secretary Mary Bousted said.
“We hope this money will not be to the detriment of another vital education spending priority. It’s unfortunate this announcement has been marred by a spat between the coalition partners – children’s welfare is too important to become a political football."