Soaring food costs leave special schools with hole in budgets

Unlike mainstream schools, schools for children with special needs do not receive specific funding for some free meals

Unlike mainstream schools, schools for children with special needs do not receive specific funding for some free meals

Half of councils are facing funding shortfalls under Sadiq Khan's free school meals scheme

Special school leaders have called for extra funding to cover the costs of providing free school meals as soaring food and staff costs leave gaping holes in their budgets.

Unlike mainstream schools, special schools do not receive specific funding for means-tested free school meals.

Although they receive more funding per-pupil and top-up funding from councils based on pupils’ individual needs, leaders say their budgets have become increasingly stretched by competing costs and static funding.

The number of special school pupils eligible for free school meals has also risen from 36.5 per cent in 2017 to 44.7 per cent last year.

Marijke Miles, headteacher of Baycroft School in Hampshire, said the cost of providing food to pupils had risen from £2.40 per meal in 2020 to £3 this year.

Almost half of her 200 pupils are eligible, meaning providing meals costs her £51,000 a year.

She said the DfE had said it did not want to change funding formulas for what it saw as “relatively small amounts of money… but it’s increasingly becoming a large amount of money”.

Miles added: “If I didn’t have to feed the children on their education money, I could have an extra teacher.”

The Eden Academy Trust has seven special schools and estimates the cost of providing meals has increased by £27,000 in just three years. 

The cost of ingredients alone has risen from £1.77 to £2.60 per meal, but chief operating officer Sudhi Pathak said staff costs, including supervisory assistants needed to help pupils who struggle to feed themselves, took the per-meal cost to over £8.00.

He said the lack of ring-fenced funding “causes us problems”, with competing “pulls” on core funding. 

To complicate matters, five of the trust’s schools are in London, where the mayor Sadiq Khan recently announced funding to extend universal free school meals to all primary pupils.

However, funding has been set at £2.65 per meal, far short of Eden’s projected costs.

Schools Week has estimated the shortfall across London between funding and the actual cost of providing meals is around £33 million.

“It’s not just the cost of the meal. It’s the equipment that we need, or extra staff in the kitchen,” Pathak said.

James Bowen, assistant general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, warned that “soaring” inflation has “heaped more pressure on these schools, as seen through the increasing cost of school meals, for which special schools receive no specific funding”.  

He added: “What’s needed is a significant uplift in funding for the sector.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said special schools were “funded from local authorities’ high needs budgets, at funding levels that reflect the varying costs of provision for their pupils, including the costs of meals”.

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