Funding for the £135 million initiative is based on an assumption that only 90 per cent of pupils will take up the offer of free meals.
However, Department for Education data for take-up of infant meals among pupils who would not qualify for means-tested benefits shows 17 of 33 London boroughs had take-up of more than 90 per cent.
Some councils had already warned that the funding rate – £2.65 per meal – was less than they actually spent on meals. Our analysis suggests the funding plans will still leave a shortfall of £33 million across London, which would be passed on to schools.
The Mayor of London’s office has said boroughs that can demonstrate take-up of more than 90 per cent will receive additional funding. But this would not arrive until next year, leaving schools having to make up any shortfalls initially.
Appearing on Newsnight earlier this month, Khan claimed it was “not the case” that schools would have to subsidise the cost of meals from their teaching budgets.
“If there is a shortfall between a school and the money that they provide their caterers or a shortfall between the council and the money they provide the caterers, we, City Hall, will provide the shortfall,” Khan added.
Asked for clarification on what form that support would take, the mayor’s office said the average take-up of universal infant free school meals was between 80 and 85 per cent in London, and this would create a “buffer” that schools could use for headroom.
If any school can “evidence” higher than 90 per cent take-up, the “necessary funding will be made available to them”.
‘Bizarre way’ to run school meal scheme
City Hall also said funding was being provided based on 2022 census data, when there were more primary school pupils on roll in the capital. This was a “conscious decision” to create “more headroom for schools and boroughs”.
However, school food campaigner Andy Jolley said Khan was “another politician who doesn’t realise, unless universal free school meals are fully funded, schools have to step in and subsidise the service. Relying on low take up to ensure schools aren’t out of pocket is a bizarre way to run an anti-poverty scheme.”
A lack of capital funding for upgrades or expansions to kitchens has also been criticised.
In correspondence obtained under FOI, the head of two schools in Barnet warned City Hall of the challenges they would face in providing the meals from September. In one school, they would need to batch-cook two rounds of meals, which has “lengthened lunchtime and added to staff costs”.
In the other school, cooking the additional meals required would “require us to replace a faulty steam oven, which we currently don’t need to use. Have you thought about this at all? We are talking about a £10,000 cost to the school and – to put this into context, after a huge cut in staffing over the last 12 months – we have set a surplus budget for next year by just £14,000.
“I didn’t freeze all staff recruitment only to go back into deficit for a cooker, when what I really need is staff! Especially when the cooker is needed as an unintended consequence of a well-intentioned but ultimately external (and therefore unplanned on my part) policy.”
Mayor’s office has already made several changes to scheme
Khan’s office has already been forced to make several concessions in response to concerns about the scheme. A £5 million fund to help with “extraordinary costs associated with implementation” has been created, which includes an increase in the funding rate for Kosher meals to £3.50 following concerns from boroughs with large Jewish communities.
City Hall has also amended the grant conditions to remove its right to claw back funding from boroughs that had less than 90 per cent take-up.
Letters to councils, obtained under freedom of information, state: “We have listened to schools and boroughs and that no clawback will be applied to the grant agreement. With the removal of the clawback, boroughs will not need to report on meals taken, so if take-up is lower than 90 per cent (which we expect it will be initially, looking at existing schemes) then there may be some additional funds available for schools to use at their discretion.”
A spokesperson said the mayor will be “closely monitoring implementation of the scheme as it is rolled out across the capital – this will include ongoing engagement with boroughs and their schools”.