Thousands of small schools are struggling to meet the cost of providing free school meals, according to a leaked government report previously kept hidden by the Department for Education.
And a decision taken earlier this year to end an annual £2,300 subsidy to small infant schools will have exacerbated the problem even further.
Infant schools are currently given £2.30 for each free meal they provide – a figure that is supposed to reflect the “average” cost of serving a lunch – but economies of scale mean small schools pupils are struggling to supply food for this amount.
Schools Week revealed in January how the “small schools taskforce” – first set up in 2014 – had reported to the government on their findings, but the DfE refused to release the material at the time, stating that it did not hold a “final draft” of the report.
A leaked version of the report, seen by Schools Week, and printed with the publication date of “May 2015”, states that an ongoing small schools subsidy was required for schools serving less than 100 meals a day.
Without extra funding, the taskforce said schools would face annual losses of just under £4,000. The scrapping of the small schools grant could nudge that shortfall closer to £6,500 per school.
Figures from the House of Commons library suggest the grant’s termination means 2,750 schools lost upwards of £6.5 million in combined annual funding.
The government defended its decision not to provide further funding, stating that an additional £32.5 million was “invested” in the schools “to help them put their meals service on a sustainable footing”.
A spokesperson added: “We were always clear that this was not long term funding.”
But Sharon Hodgson, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for school food, has warned the funding deficit risks the future of the policy.
She said: “Schools are already facing financial pressures to deliver high-quality education with rising costs and shrinking budgets, now when they return from the summer holidays, they will face an estimated financial black hole of nearly £4,000 to ensure UIFSM remains viable.”
Hodgson also accused the government of “burying” the report “and instead pushed ahead with this short-sighted cut which will now jeopardise the very future of this important intervention.”
The report reveals a number of case study schools, including 68-pupil Payhembury C of E school, which was promoted in government materials as being able to deliver hot meals “without being a drain on school resources”, but the authors found the school actually needed an additional 17-36p per meal to break even.
Neil Short, an education consultant and chair of the National Association for Small Schools, said the scrapping of the grant was another example of the “low regard of the 2,500 small schools in England are held”.
He added: “It is a shame that the excellent work achieved in these schools is ignored along with their importance to their communities.”
The report also raises important questions about the DfE’s transparency.
In December, the Department for Education (DfE) told Andy Jolley, an education blogger, that a final version of the report had “not been received”, following a freedom of information request.
The leaked report, however, lists its completion date as May 2015 – supporting the view of the former taskforce chair, James Mill, who told Schools Week the report was given to the government last spring.
Within the hidden report, it was clearly stated that the taskforce had agreed its findings “must be freely available to all across the sector”.
The Department for Education refused to give any comment regarding the report’s suppression.
Jolley said: “The DfE continued to fight against release of the report, despite it being written for wider publication.
“People will have to make up their own minds, but it looks suspiciously like the DfE were concealing this report to prevent embarrassment.”