After a leaked report revealed the DfE knew small schools needed extra funds to provide free meals – yet still ended their subsidy – Barbara Taylor issues a fair-funding challenge to government

Following a successful initiative giving free fruit to infants, the concept of free infant school meals, providing healthy, nourishing food at lunchtime, was a welcome move. For large schools, which already had halls and kitchens, implementation was no problem – and with an allocation of £2.30 per free meal, profits could reasonably be made.

Not so for small schools: without these facilities, they faced more of a challenge. As one headteacher put it, wryly responding to a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Small Schools (NASS): “As it is always the way with small schools everyone has stepped up and gone the extra mile to make sure we fulfil our obligation.”

The NASS investigated the implementation of this initiative at the end of its first term in operation, to find out how our schools were faring. We received a range of responses; one school in Cornwall said: “No problem here, as we already had a kitchen and a cook – with small numbers – so easy to accommodate”, but it wasn’t all good. A head in Cumbria reported: “Both schools were packed-lunch schools before so we have had to set up everything from scratch”.

The NASS found that coping strategies used by schools showed initiative, flexibility and commitment from the staff. One school persuaded “the care home across the road” to provide its meals, adding: “the only classroom assistant helps in the care home with the preparation of the meals for 30 minutes every day. Teachers take it in turns to help serve the lunch and mums come in to wash up.”

“We buy from a school in a neighbouring town and rely on parent volunteers driving there (20 minutes) to collect,” said another.

“We have the simplest structure we could,” wrote a third. “We have hot boxes delivered in the morning, we set up tables in the village hall, food is served, the boxes and dishes are collected to be washed. I have added to my daily duties. One of them is mopping the hall floor – not quite what I foresaw when taking up headship.”

Mopping the hall floor is not quite what I foresaw when taking up headship

“No kitchen in the school,” lamented one head. “Small numbers make it unattractive to an outside caterer, as they are tied to the middle of the day, every day of the school year, producing small numbers of meals for a small profit. In our area we do have a lot of catering outlets, but many of them close for a month or two in January and February.”

As time progressed it became obvious that the allowance provided by the government is not enough. Headteachers reported that the money received per pupil entitled to a free meal, along with the £2,300 allocation for schools with 150 or fewer pupils, was insufficient to cover the total cost of provision. Small numbers meant that there was no opportunity for economies of scale; contractors’ management fees were proportionately greater, so it became necessary to use money from school budgets.

This situation has continued. As chair of governors of a small school, I know that the additional contribution from our budget in the last academic year was well over £4,000. The removal of the annual subsidy will put further pressure on the school, which is in one of poorest funded shire counties, a member of the f40 group*, where most small schools, usually rural, tend to be found.

Back in Autumn 2015, then-chancellor George Osborne made a commitment to introduce a new, fairer national funding system. The government said it would phase out the existing, arbitrary process, where some authorities in the poorest areas receive as much as £2,000 less per pupil in total.

The implementation of this commitment, originally set for 2017-18, has now been moved to 2018-2019. Yet the school meals subsidy has still been removed. Wouldn’t it be more equitable, while this inequality exists, for small schools to still receive the £2,300 subsidy they so desperately need?

*The f40 group represents a group of the lowest-funded education authorities in England where government-set cash allocations for primary and secondary pupils are among the worst. These authorities have 41 per cent of the schools in England, catering for nearly 36 per cent of all England’s pupils.

 

Barbara Taylor is Chair of governers of a small school, member of National Association for Small Schools committee and a retired headteacher