Posted in education, Free School Meals, policy, procurement

Universal Infant Free School Meals: Working with caterers

The two previous Recipe for Change blogs addressed making the dining room appealing and engaging with parents to help achieve value for money with Universal Infant Free School Meal (UIFSM) provision.

This blog is all about working with caterers. The vast majority do an excellent job and are extremely good at providing healthy, tasty and child-friendly school meals that comply with the school food standards; however, it’s the working relationship that they have with the school and how they communicate with the children that determines whether or not the UIFSM policy will be successful.

The problems

Here are the problems we have had to deal with on numerous occasions over the last ten years with caterers:

  1. Systems designed for adults not children

School cooks aren’t paid much and have little time left after service to wash up and clear away dining room equipment. So, if they can serve all the children as part of a continuous service, they get to finish the job earlier. That’s why so many school dining rooms end up becoming feeding stations. This is a system designed for adults, not children, and it’s why there is a reluctance to introduce our proposed restaurant-style lunchtime we talked about in our first blog based on a series of set sittings.

  1. Not enough cutlery

Schools seem to run out of cutlery often. Despite repeated requests for more, schools often don’t get any. Furthermore, as caterers have benefitted from UIFSM (there are claims that Chartwells have made £30 million) this shouldn’t be a problem. Not having enough cutlery may seem insignificant; however, it does compromise the effectiveness of UIFSM. Recently, we were observing a service in a school which we knew needed a lot more cutlery. There were four members of staff in the kitchen. Two were serving and the other two were busy washing up what little cutlery they had left. If all four had been serving the children, everyone would have been served much quicker. But, because there was only two serving, it took twice as long. So, even if schools create lovely restaurant-style lunchtimes and engage with parents to increase uptake, a lack of cutlery compromises all the good work done.

  1. Performance management

School leaders can’t line manage their kitchen staff unless they are employed in-house. This can often lead to major relationship problems which can really put children off eating a school dinner. In one school we worked with recently, some of the midday supervisors said the school cook sent a young boy to the back of the queue for accidentally spilling his dinner on the floor whilst looking to see if he had got a spot under his plate to win a prize. This creates a very negative association with school meals and will encourage that child to ask for a home-packed lunch instead. The school had to then spend time meeting with the caterers to discuss performance management. This takes time and often doesn’t result in either the inappropriate behaviour improving or the member of staff being replaced.

The solutions

Here are our proposed solutions to the three problems we have discussed based on our experience of working with caterers.

  1. Kitchen staff working patterns

Changing from a continuous service to a series of sittings doesn’t necessarily mean kitchen staff hours need to be increased. It’s often just a change in working patterns. If a school moves from a one sitting service to three, there will be gaps in between each sitting which can be used to collect dirty crockery and wash up. By the end of service, staff will not have done a lot more washing up than they would have done when they were running a continuous service. The work load is likely to be the same – it’s just done in a different way. One school we worked with recently wanted to move from a two sitting service to three but with no changes to the service time. The school were told if they wanted to do this it would cost them almost £1,000. Apart from maybe a few more food containers to deal with the extra sitting, there would be no other costs involved. It should be perfectly feasible and possible, therefore, for school leaders to negotiate an increase in the number of sittings without incurring much additional cost.

  1. Getting more cutlery

If schools are working with a large catering company, the provision of extra-light equipment, such as cutlery, plates, bowls and beakers, should be no problem. Whenever we have been asked by a school to deal with this issue, the caterers seem quite happy to provide the extra equipment.

  1. Whole-school consultation

Employing a third party expert who is knowledgeable about catering and understands how to create a good school food culture may be necessary to solve staff performance problems. We have been employed to do this on several occasions. Our approach is to conduct consultations with the children, the teachers and the midday supervisors so that they can contribute ideas about lunchtimes. This gives the school valuable feedback about exactly why the school cook or one of their assistants is upsetting people and what impact this is having on the children and on other members of staff. When presented to the caterers, this evidence-based information is usually enough to trigger a much more effective solution.

At one school we worked with we were asked to chair a meeting with the headteacher, business manager, the school cook who was causing problems, and their line manager. This resulted in the school cook changing their whole attitude and approach. Having a quick chat with the line manager just doesn’t seem to work, but a professional performance management meeting, with evidence-based information about the problem, is much more effective.

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