Schools left to pick up the tab for London free meals scheme

Schools in some parts of London will have to meet any funding shortfall for the mayor's extension of free meals to primary pupils

Schools in some parts of London will have to meet any funding shortfall for the mayor's extension of free meals to primary pupils

Some schools could be faced with plugging funding shortfalls for London mayor Sadiq Khan's plan for universal free meals at primary

Schools in some parts of London will have to meet any funding shortfall for the mayor’s extension of free meals to primary pupils, but councils in other areas will front up the difference.

Several boroughs told Schools Week the £2.65 per meal allocated by Sadiq Khan’s office for the scheme falls short of what’s needed, with little time and no extra money available to upgrade facilities and increase staffing for the September rollout.

Although the funding on offer is more than the £2.41 currently paid by central government for infant meals, our analysis suggests the funding plans will still leave a shortfall of £33 million across London.

While some boroughs have welcomed the investment and even pledged to top up funding to cover the meals, others have warned they will not be able to do so if it falls short. It suggests the investment will have an uneven impact across the capital.

Andy Jolley, a school food campaigner, said Khan had “completely underestimated the difficulties of implementation”, and that schools would be “left to pick up the pieces”.

The mayor was “up against the reality of providing school meals, it simply can’t be done on the cheap”.

Lewisham council said the funding shortfall could cost schools in the borough as much as £600,000. However, it has approved capital spending of £620,000 from its own budgets to upgrade kitchens.

Schools already under ‘significant’ financial pressure

Bexley council said it shared “the concerns of our schools on the practicalities and financial challenges that they will face in delivering these extra meals from September”. 

These included the logistics around the physical delivery of the extra meals and the extra costs. 

“The council does not have the funds to meet any additional costs associated with this initiative and this will need to be met by our schools.”

Kingston and Richmond councils, which share some services, said the “logistics of mobilising the expansion in such a short period of time is causing concern, at a time when schools are already under significant pressure in terms of children’s needs and school finances”.

A spokesperson said schools were assessing the changes to kitchens, dining halls, staffing and school timetables that might be needed to implement the new scheme. 

Sutton said it had 27 schools in a contract with a set cost, which was less than £2.65 per meal. Others made their own arrangements, but if they faced a shortfall, “schools would be responsible” for meeting it.

“As the funding is only for one year, commencing with a short timescale and the take-up is unknown, schools will need to manage with the equipment and sites they have and manage the situation accordingly. 

“If this were to continue then some capital funding may be required.”

Some boroughs already provide universal free meals

Some boroughs already provide universal primary free meals. Westminster will use the extra funding from the mayor to extend the scheme to secondary pupils. It will top up the cash to £3 per meal.

Newham also has universal primary free meals. Joshua Garfield, the council’s cabinet member for education, said funding from the mayor “brings us closer to the actual cost when compared to the national government’s standing rate of £2.41 for infant schools – a figure that seems to be frozen in time”.

However, the money fell short of the £3 needed to provide meals in the borough. Newham is awaiting details on whether boroughs with existing schemes would face different grant conditions.

Other councils said the funding from City Hall would cover the cost of meals. 

Waltham Forest said its cost per meal was not above £2.65, and “we do not anticipate any shortfall”. However, “final costs will be dependent on take-up and staffing required”.

Merton said most of its primary schools were on a contract costing £2.40, and even planned inflationary increases would not take it above £2.65 next year.

However, it said there was “some concern” about capital funding “as we do have some small kitchens and may be need to use some neighbouring larger kitchen to help out in a small number of cases”. 

A spokesperson said the mayor’s team “are continuing to work closely with schools, councils and partners on the implementation of this unprecedented policy”, and pointed out the funding was “almost 10 per cent more” than provided by government.

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