Ever heard the saying: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away”?
A mere two years ago, the government introduced universal infant free school meals (UIFSM).
Evidence from the pilot projects showed that while all children benefitted from free school meals, low-income children benefitted the most. Nutritional intake improved dramatically and children at these schools quickly moved ahead of their peers elsewhere academically, by almost a term.
Furthermore, free school meals improve all children’s diets and save parents £400 a year, taking the pressure off severely strained family finances.
Despite providing schools with over £175 million to improve their kitchens, and encouraging the school workforce to make substantial changes to put it all in place, the government threatened to axe UIFSM.
But alas, the day was saved by David Cameron. In a bid to dodge being dubbed “Dave the dinner snatcher”, Mr Cameron made a commitment to keep UIFSM, but ignored the small matter of finances.
No one was surprised when the news hit earlier this year that the extra funding for small schools was cut.
Ironically, The School Food Plan said small schools face even greater challenges in delivering great school meals than their larger counterparts. With fewer pupils to serve, economies of scale are tougher to come by; many are located in hard to reach rural areas, often without full kitchens on site.
Schools with 150 or fewer pupils were originally given £2,300 to help deliver the government’s policy of free school meals.
The School Food Plan found that small schools, which serve less than 100 meals a day, seldom break even because of the fixed costs of catering in each school. The Small Schools Taskforce was set up in late 2013 to demonstrate how small schools can serve great school food at an affordable price.
The plan said that an ongoing small schools subsidy should be given to those schools serving fewer than 100 meals a day. The £2,300 additional UIFSM subsidy funding announced for schools with fewer than 150 pupils for 2015-2016 was welcome news for small schools; but this will not cover meal costs in all schools.
Many small schools are rural and have little, if any, choice in providers. LAs no longer run in-house catering that tends to cross subsidise and support these schools and given the funding cuts in the local government, few have the funds to provide new kitchens – which would run at a loss anyway.
But the DfE posted an update to their UIFSM website page at 4:25pm on Friday 29 January 2016, prompting the revelation that extra funding for small schools had been axed altogether.
This was how the department delivered such news:
It is a legal requirement to provide meals to all infants even though many of the aforementioned small schools struggle to find a caterer who will offer them a meal at £2.30 a head. Even with the previous additional £2,300 funding, some schools were still struggling to offer provisions. Axing the already much needed funding could be the cherry on the cake that means some schools will be forced to make cuts where necessary, resulting in redundancies and even risking closing their doors.
If the DfE is going to continue to persevere with the UIFSM policy, then it needs to increase the funding that each school receives, if it fails to do this, the children will suffer.
We interviewed Andy Jolley, a former school governor and free school meals blogger, who believes the government needs to “reinstate funding” for UIFSM if it isn’t going to scrap the policy.
Mr Jolley said: “The DfE need to change their priorities. These funding cuts need to be addressed and more needs to be done to tackle holiday hunger.”
To add fuel to the already contentious fire, ministers refused to publish the report which revealed the feasibility of providing UIFSM.
Back in August a leaked version of the report highlighted that thousands of small schools were struggling to deliver the meals – and yet the government proceeded to end the funding to help such schools.
Mr Jolley said: “The DfE seem determined to seek out every possible excuse for delaying this report.
“For them it’s a win-win, the funding to small schools has quietly been cut and they avoided the avalanche of criticism we would have seen had there been evidence they were ignoring an expert report’s conclusions.
“It’s a little more than delaying tactics, postponing bad publicity until the initial fuss dies down.”
It is clear than anyone involved can see that the necessary funding is the only way UIFSM can be feasible in small schools.
The published report won’t tell us anything we don’t already know, Mr Jolley explained, but it will “show that they knew the effects of the funding cuts and there is evidence to back this up.”
It will be interesting to see how the DfE will react to the inevitable bombardment of inquires following the publication of the report, they may even bring their heads out of sand.
Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent (2013) ‘The School Food Plan’
 Andy Jolley (2016) (Telephone communication regarding funding cuts to UIFSM) [Personal communication: 03 November 2016]