Could free lunches leave pupils hungry for opportunities?

14th August 2015 at 01:00
Lessons under threat as small schools struggle to pay for meals

Hundreds of small primaries may have to cut lessons in order to provide lunches for infants, as they struggle to meet the government's free school meals pledge, TES has learned.

The policy of giving every child aged 5-7 a free school meal was introduced last year, despite concerns that many small schools did not have the facilities to prepare the food.

Now, hundreds of primaries may have to cut provision in subjects such as music to pay for lunches. Funding allocated by the government is not enough to cover the costs, according to the National Association of Small Schools (NASS).

Henry Dimbleby, one of the architects of the scheme and a cofounder of restaurant chain Leon, told TES that he warned the government about the cost implications for small schools right from the start.

"We have always said there needs to be more money," he added. "It's not tens of thousands per school, it's a few thousand. Small schools do have a structural issue. The government recognises that and we expect a permanent solution will be found to help those schools."

Barbara Taylor, secretary of the NASS, which represents 500 schools with 100 pupils or fewer, stressed her support for the principle of free school meals. But she added: "I am the chair of governors of a primary school with just 46 pupils and it is going to cost us pound;9,000 to supplement free school meals. We are now discussing whether we can hire extra staff to teach music."

Most NASS member schools faced the same dilemma, Ms Taylor said, adding: "Small schools don't tend to have an awful lot of carry-forward in terms of budgets."

The coalition government provided pound;450 million to fund the free meals policy in 2014-15; the Conservative government is contributing a further pound;635 million in 2015-16. The scheme is expected to save parents about pound;437 a year, per child.

The pledge was initially announced in 2013 by former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, and it immediately prompted funding concerns among advisers to Conservative education ministers. One told TES at the time: "Every pound spent on Clegg's kitchens will mean a pound not spent on stopping schools falling down."

This week, a Department for Education spokesperson said that schools with fewer than 150 pupils were receiving a minimum of pound;3,000 to deliver the policy.

Size matters

The NAHT headteachers' union said that every school, regardless of size, was being forced to find extra cash from its "already stretched budgets" to deliver the policy. And it warned that small primaries were struggling.

Valentine Mulholland, NAHT policy adviser, said: "At the moment there is no commitment from the government to provide additional funding for small schools beyond 2016.

"Small schools will have found implementation particularly challenging, and can be disadvantaged when negotiating the best deals on quality and price with their school meal provider."

Mr Dimbleby proposed giving every infant a healthy lunch in 2013, in the School Food Plan he drew up for the DfE with fellow Leon co-founder John Vincent. He stressed that "despite the scare stories, 98.5 per cent of schools are delivering hot meals to their pupils", adding: "Schools have proven conclusively they are able to provide lunches to their pupils."

A DfE spokesperson said: "Thanks to this government's reforms, over a million more infants are eating a free, hot, healthy meal at lunchtime."

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