Free infant meals unsustainable at flagship school

Free infant meals unsustainable at flagship school

A small school hailed as proof that free lunches could be delivered to all infants without draining school resources has now applied for a government hand-out as delivering the policy is ‘unsustainable’.

Last September the government introduced universal infant free schools (UIFSM) which sees all pupils from reception to Year 2 given free school meals.

Payhembury CofE School in Devon, which has just 68 pupils, was seen in materials promoted by the Small School Taskforce in the months before the policy’s implementation as an example of a small school that could provide hot meals “without being a drain on school resources”.

However, documents revealed as part of a freedom of information request have shown the school applied to the government for a capital grant to build an extension to the village hall where lunches are currently prepared.

Without the £43,217 extra cash applied for, the school has stated that its continued lunch delivery is “unsustainable”.

But despite its request for more money, the school was not listed among the final grant recipients announced by the government earlier this week.

Payhembury participated in a pilot of UIFSM, organised by the School Food Plan, an independent organisation commissioned by then-education secretary Michael Gove, in July 2012.

A video of the school’s success was uploaded to Youtube by the School Food Plan. It showed pupils eating hot meals, and the food receiving praise from parents, governors and children. (see pictures below).

On Wednesday, the video was removed after Schools Week raised questions about the grant application.

A report of the pilot was published in April last year and in it headteacher Penny Hammett said: “We can now run a viable school meals service based on healthy, fresh, nutritious food.”

Figures in the report said that given the extra funding provided to small schools for UIFSM, Payhembury would have an annual deficit of £1,053 if only 40 pupils took the free meals but a surplus of money if 80 pupils did so.

The grant application seen by Schools Week states that the school is currently subsidising the free lunches to the tune of approximately “£1,000 per 6-week period”. The application form said that this was unsustainable.

Myles Bremner, director of the School Food Plan’s implementation, said the school was now using a new catering company, Devon Norse. It has previously used PKL catering equipment and Brake Brothers pre-prepared main courses, as suggested by the Taskforce.

He said: “It has proved really hard, I think the headteacher and governors in the first half term found with the extra numbers it was not able to deliver the proposal that was promoted through the Small School Taskforce.

“The school needed to have better infrastructure. What was presented at the time has not come into fruition.”

Andy Jolley, a former school governor and blogger who commonly highlights the problem of UIFSM for small schools, pointed out that Payhembury’s situation suggests others may struggle.

He said: “The problems faced by Payhembury are common to many small schools. That the experts at the small schools task force were unable to set up a viable lunch service will send shock waves through UIFSM supporters. If, with all the extra help and support, a handpicked school can’t properly implement the policy, what hope for all the other small schools around the country.”

Mr Bremner, however, was more optimistic.

“This must not overshadow the amazing story of UIFSM. Take up is at 85 per cent and is continuing to raise school meal provision. There are challenges that need ongoing support and I am never going to shy away from that,” he added.

Mrs Hammett declined to comment.

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