5th March 2010 at 00:00
We use an external supplier for our school catering, but would like to bring it in-house. How do we go about it?

Running an in-house catering service is a full-time job akin to running a restaurant. This means that schools wanting to bring their catering in-house will need to think carefully about resourcing and responsibility for the service.

The advantages include having full control over the service, making it possible to respond to the needs of the school, children, parents and wider community.

Doing it in-house will enable you to consider environmental, economic and social sustainability in food sourcing. This will be a school requirement from 2020 as part of the sustainable schools framework.

However, running a meals service is a big responsibility. The work required to provide a service compliant with regulations that range from menu planning to health and safety is significant. Health and safety requirements for food preparation are on the Food Standards Agency website.

In addition, the school has to take all the risk of delivering a service, including being able to cover for staff absences. The following must be considered:

- allocation of responsibilities;

- staffing;

- training;

- hygiene and food safety;

- health and safety;

- maintenance of kitchen equipment;

- procurement of ingredients and equipment;

- sourcing suppliers;

- collection of payment.

Staffing is something you will need to take care with, and you should consult with the relevant unions early in the process. Existing catering staff working on site will be protected by Tupe (transfer of undertakings (protection of employment)) regulations, which dictate that current terms and conditions automatically transfer to the new employer - in this case, the school.

Next, look at the skills of your team. You may discover training needs or requirements for additional support, or that they have skills that have been underused in the past.

There are several examples in which schools have recruited catering managers and trained chefs to overhaul their catering services once they become the responsibility of the school. Healthy meals tend to have a positive effect on behaviour and concentration.

Some schools have collaborated to provide a jointly managed and funded catering service. In 2004, Food for Thought (FFT), a not-for-profit school company consortium based in Liverpool, won a contract to provide catering for six primary schools.

A collaborative approach provides increased buying power, a wider pool of staff to call on in the event of sickness and back-up facilities in the event of equipment or power failure. This type of arrangement has the additional benefit of greater control over the service and the meals provided.

At FFT, all food preparation takes place on each individual school site. Staff rotate across schools to share best practice and cover staff shortages. Locally reared meat is sourced from a local independent slaughter company and butchers who deliver to each school. Fresh vegetables and fruit are sourced from a local greengrocer.

The new approach has resulted in increased meal uptake across all schools in the FFT consortium and prices for these schools have remained fixed at #163;1.50 per pupil per day.

Providing your school is willing to take on the responsibility for the service and it is properly resourced, it can only benefit from taking greater control of its catering service.

Caroline Cochrane is a specialist researcher for The Key, an information service for school leaders. www.usethekey.org.uk.

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