A challenging year ahead for school food

Written by: HTU | Published:

On top of the challenge of expanding free school meals to all key stage 1 children, schools now face new school food standards in January. Suzanne O’Connell looks at the challenges ahead for school food.

It seemed like a good idea and most schools welcome the principle. However, the problems with implementing free school meals for key stage 1 (as detailed in Headteacher Update in May) are not going away. And now there are new standards too...

The idea that all children in key stage 1 should be guaranteed a nutritious meal at lunchtime has much to recommend it. It is a catch-all designed to ensure that the nation’s children can rely on having at least one healthy meal a day in their first years of school.

However, when deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced the plans, it is unlikely that he was aware of just how many difficulties such a seemingly good idea could bring with it. 

Now, the reality of being the nation’s school dinner protagonist is perhaps not living up to expectations. Mr Clegg was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 in July and was confronted with what his good idea really means for schools.

Councils struggling

The BBC had requested information from councils in England about the amount of money they needed to provide free school meals for all key stage 1 children and the amount they were receiving from central government.

Of the 99 councils who replied, 34 of them told the BBC that they were having to use money from their own budgets. Essex County Council reported that they were £3 million short, an amount that councils do not have “spare” to use as top-up. Inevitably, therefore, some schools are being expected to meet the deficit from their own budgets. It is reported that in Leeds, schools have been told that they must find half of the money needed. Councils feel aggrieved that in spite of this being a government initiative, they are having to dip into their own pockets to finance it.

Furthermore, as Headteacher Update went to press, the Local Government Association had issued new research showing that 47 per cent of local authorities report not having enough money to ensure their school kitchens are up to scratch. The average shortfall is £488,000 (for full details on this latest development, Headteacher Update's report here).

The challenge – and the response 

Even where set-up costs are being fully funded there are ongoing running costs that will have to be met on a yearly basis. In July, school business manager at Millbrook Infant School in Kettering, Sharon Pinson, told BBC Radio 5 about her school’s £8,500 shortfall: “The biggest challenge for us is the logistics of the school setting. Our hall was built for six classes and over the years we’ve expanded to 12 classes. All 360 of our children are aged between 4 and 7, so the very youngest age group – every one of them will be entitled to a free school meal from September.”

She continued: “We have challenges with our seating arrangements, previously our children ate in the classrooms so they weren’t used to coming in the hall. We’ve had to invest in tables and seating that can easily be put out in a very short period of time.

“We’ve had to extend the lunch period not for the children but for the school so that has a significant affect on our timetables and the head has spent many, many hours reconfiguring timetables for September to avoid any detriment to the teaching timetable.”

When asked to answer concerns, Mr Clegg responded: “All I would say to those people who would constantly undermine and cynically seek to denigrate a policy which is as popular as this, as well-researched as this, as well-funded as this, let’s wait until September.

“Because this is a big change and in any big change of the school system we have hundreds and thousands of schools of course there will be some schools who will have some difficulties and may not meet the drop down date in early September to have free school meals delivered exactly as they want on the first day.

“It will be a huge change and the vast majority of schools have already told us in government that they’re ready, not only that they’re ready, they are willing. I just hope people get behind the policy instead of constantly trying to denigrate the value of it.”

Not perfect from day one

There are comprises being made throughout the system as the reality of this policy takes hold. The original intention had been that the meals delivered would have to be “hot”. The practicalities soon demonstrated that this would not be possible in all circumstances. Even where the money was found to refit, refurbish and in some cases build the necessary kitchens and accommodation, this was unlikely to be completed by September 2014.

The Department for Education (DfE) stated in September 2013 that, “the government will fund schools in England to provide every child in reception, year 1 and year 2 with a hot, nutritious meal at lunchtime”. 

In subsequent advice documents “hot” was no longer essential, at least in the early stages: “The legal requirement on schools will be to provide a lunchtime meal that meets the School Food Standards, where they apply. We expect that pupils will routinely be offered a hot meal option. Where schools are not in a position to offer hot options from September 2014, they should be working towards doing so as soon as possible.”

In some cases schools are buying in prepared meals that must be kept warm or reheating meals with children perhaps eating them at their desks. A reality not originally part of the plan.

Millbrook Infant School, featured by the BBC, is a large school with more than 360 pupils. Having to pass so many children through a school dining hall has proved to be a challenge. However, at the other end of the spectrum, small schools are also struggling to deliver. 

The difficulties for the small school

Neil Short is chair of the National Association for Small Schools (NASS). He has particular concerns about the impact this is having on the schools he represents with less than 100 on role: “I recently undertook some smallscale research and found that for many small schools there were particular, additional problems.”

The issues that Mr Short found they were most vulnerable to included: 

  • Lack of space/kitchen facilities.
  • Lack of suitable space to actually seat all the diners.
  • Difficulties in finding providers with many schools saying that their existing external provider was unable to meet the expected increase in demand.
  • Administrative difficulties relating to ordering.
  • Future funding concerns.

Mr Short is generally supportive of the new initiative but feels it just hasn’t been thought through sufficiently: “While the move to enhance the health opportunities for the youngest children has to be applauded. The speed and the ‘one-size-fits-all’ nature of the provision without a full recognition of the specific problems facing individual schools is a worry – and for the smallest and most vulnerable even more so. A little more research before announcements were made may have been beneficial.”

Policy into practice 

The implementation of the universal free school meal policy in key stage 1 is not the only challenge schools face this term. SEN reform, the new national curriculum and changes to assessment have all created significant school management dilemmas that school leadership are having to solve as best they can. 

Perhaps what all these new initiatives and reforms have in common is an apparent lack of concern about what policy implementation means in practice. Could 2014/15 emerge as the year that schools were left to straddle the gap between the vision of political leaders and the practicalities of the primary classroom? 

The new School Food Standards 

In addition to introducing new lunchtime procedures schools will have to contend with new food standards from January 1, 2015. The standards are credited by the Department for Education as being tougher, simpler and less expensive to implement than before. 

In the advice for governing bodies, School Food in England, it is recommended that governing bodies, along with the school’s senior leadership team, develop a whole-school food policy that includes:

  • The school’s approach to its provision of food.
  • Food education (including practical cooking).
  • The role of the catering team.
  • The school’s strategy to increase the take-up of school lunches.

The School Food Plan website does provide additional materials and guidance for schools, including posters about the new standards, a checklist for school lunches, and a practical guide for schools, cooks and caterers that includes:

  • Guidance on implementing the standards.
  • Top tips.
  • Portion sizes and food groups.
  • How to increase the iron, zinc and calcium content of your menu.
  • School food other than lunch.
  • Where to go for more information.

However, provision will still be patchy as some schools will not officially have to implement the standards. Academies established between 2010 and June 2014 are not required through their funding agreements to comply but are being asked to sign up voluntarily. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

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