They are charging more for meals, buying in bulk and opting for cheaper versions of staples as the credit crunch begins to bite
Schools are cutting rice, cheese and beef from their lunch menus as they struggle to keep costs under control. And soaring energy bills are forcing heads to consider how they can save on lighting and heating.
At the same time, schools are experiencing the tightest funding round in years: about 7,700 have only 2.1 per cent more in their budgets. But this week, the retail price index rose to 4.6 per cent, rendering schools budgets - set just three months ago - out of date. The heftiest increases were in fuel, meat, fruit, bread and cereals.
In Bradford, the council's fuel bill has risen by pound;5 million to pound;19.6m in a year, and schools account for more than half of this. The council said it would try to cut its own overheads rather than pass on the cost to services or council taxpayers.
Many local authorities have increased the price of school dinners to pound;2 or more, sparking fears that some parents will give their children unhealthy packed lunches instead.
The cost of canteen ingredients increased 7 per cent last year, and figures show that prices have increased another 5 per cent in 2008. In the East Riding of Yorkshire, the council has been forced to increase the price of school dinners from pound;1.65 to pound;1.80 in primaries and to pound;2.10 in secondaries. Alan Woods, the council's catering unit manager, said the worldwide wheat shortageand the increased price of rice, dairy products and beef, had contributed to a 30 per cent year-on-year rise in food costs.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said schools were not immune from the credit crisis. "Budgets will have to be revised," he said. "They will have to cut back on books, food and heating costs. But once you've pared those down, you're looking at redundancies."
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said rising energy costs would encourage long-term solutions such as solar panels and more environmentally sound transport options for pupils' school journeys.
In the short term, he said, schools would have to pass on costs. But, he said: "If dinners rise too much, parents will send their children to school with jam butties. That won't help them concentrate in the afternoon."
Many schools also have to find money for six years of back-pay for support staff, mainly women.
Roger Sheard, Bradford's catering operations manager, hopes to hold the pound;1.35 price for the council's 26,000 school dinners until January - but it is difficult. His cooks plan their menus in advance to get bulk deals. They use mutton rather than beef, and use less cheese by replacing mild cheddar with stronger flavours. Tuna has been replaced with canned mackerel or salmon in fish pies. In October, they expect to replace rice with couscous or bread.
Grant Monahan, a councillor in Plymouth, where secondary school dinners have risen 15p to pound;1.95, said they had struck a balance: "Most parents would rather pay 10p more than lower the quality of food on their children's plates."
Valerie Hopkins, business manager of Stratford upon Avon High School in Warwickshire, said her school was part of a group purchasing organisation. Bulk buying kept prices down, but they still spent pound;80m on fuel for 5,000 customers. "I used to shop around for gas and electricity, but now I can't get as good a price," she said. "Contracts used to be for 18 months; now prices are agreed sometimes for only nine."