Will the FSM expansion threaten Pupil Premium?

Written by: HTU | Published:

The announcement of free school meals for all key stage 1 children was greeted positively by most. However, as we draw closer to its implementation, the implications of this new legislation seem to go far beyond kitchen capacity.

The Children and Families Act legislation will ensure that our youngest pupils will have access to at least one healthy meal at lunchtime.

That every pupil in reception, year 1 and year 2 should be entitled to a free school dinner sounds ideal. Welcome news too that £150 million should be made available for schools to expand their kitchen and dining facilities.

But behind the headlines some schools are facing organisational complications and concerns were quickly raised about schools’ capacity to cope. While working out the catering practicalities, other issues are also rapidly emerging. Would parents still register for free school meals (FSMs) if their children were eligible anyway?

The timescale unfortunately coincides with other important changes to the educational landscape as a new curriculum, assessment and SEN arrangements are set to be implemented in September too. This new initiative, that on the face of it looks so good, is causing a few headaches across the education sector. 

A guaranteed meal

In spite of this, schools largely agree with the expansion of FSM entitlement. Some children continue to miss out on a free school meal who would benefit from the provision. There can be stigma associated with being eligible, however sensitively it has been handled by the school. Having blanket entitlement should remove this.

Elisa Basnett, headteacher of Brownsover Community Infant School in Rugby, can see the advantages: “In principle, the provision of a hot and healthy school lunch every day can only be a good thing for the children.

“The free provision from September 2014, will hopefully increase school dinner uptake and play a key role in promoting and supporting healthy eating and lifestyles. It will enable children to try a wider range of foods, as well as give them the fuel they need for an afternoon of focused and high-quality learning.”

Tony Coppin, headteacher at The Mayflower Primary School in Essex, recognises that it may help them address an ongoing issue: “We have had concerns about the contents of some lunch boxes – cakes and chocolate etc. This looks like a positive move from that point of view.”

Fitting them all in 

Nonetheless, some schools are facing a planning nightmare. At Brownsover there are complications, as Ms Basnett explained: “In order to accommodate the higher numbers, we have to amend our lunchtime schedule to enable two sittings. 

“The physical constraints of our hall size, along with the requirement to serve hot food within a 30-minute time span means that we are not able to sit all children together, and so there will need to be a staggered approach to staffing in order to support this.”

At Mayflower, similar adjustments need to be made. Mr Coppin explained: “We do have some problems. For example the size of our hall, cutlery and crockery, but generally we have been well supported by Essex and we’ve got a grant for a new oven and fryer.”

However, when it comes to supporting others, Mr Coppin recognises that they have reached their capacity: “We have been asked to cook meals for another school but we’ve declined this – our kitchen isn’t big enough.”

It is perhaps the smallest schools that find themselves most challenged by the new legislation. Sam Nixon is headteacher at Kenninghall Community Primary School in Norfolk and executive headteacher of a jigsaw partnership of three small schools. 

He told us: “Like many small schools we are a ‘dining centre’ which in other words means we don’t have our own kitchen and our meals are prepared off-site at another local school and delivered just before they are due to be served. 

“The biggest challenge for us will be space. If we need all the children to eat together we will struggle just using the hall. We currently have two sittings with all hot dinners eating first so their food doesn’t sit in insulated boxes for too long, but with the increased uptake we will presumably see in September we may struggle to do that.”

Impact on the Premium

While the new legislation’s impact on school facilities has been well documented, another consequence has been less so. Mr Nixon continued: “There’s another struggle that is causing just as much concern – will parents be prepared still to claim FSM if all children are entitled to it anyway?

“The part I find confusing about this is the affect it could have on Pupil Premium. FSM criteria is a blunt way to measure deprivation but at least it is incentivised at the moment for parents to engage with the assessment criteria as there is a clear and immediate benefit. 

“If all children have FSM in early years and key stage 1 then will parents still complete forms to show they are entitled to Pupil Premium support? The Pupil Premium supports vital initiatives in schools to improve the life chances of less privileged children but isn’t always as immediately evident as a hot meal each day.”

Ms Basnett raises similar concerns: “The biggest impact will come from Pupil Premium funding. It is a challenge already to encourage those who are eligible to apply for FSM. Once they become available for all, there will be even less incentive for parents to go through the process of applying.”

The Department for Education itself acknowledges that an average of 11 per cent of families who are entitled to FSM do not claim, although this varies dramatically across counties.

It recently confirmed that Pupil Premium funding for 2014/15 will be allocated by data collected in January 2014, meaning that for next year the Pupil Premium will not be affected. But what after that? 

Will the extra £1,300 that schools will be eligible for next year for each Pupil Premium child be sufficient enticement for families to go through the means-tested assessment? Some think not. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has raised concerns that schools might lose at least some of their funding. 

Identifying eligibility 

Overall, the NAHT sees the provision of FSM for all key stage 1 children as a positive step. Valentine Mulholland, the union’s policy advisor, said: “It will help ensure that there is a nutritional meal available at this very important age, including to the children of the working poor who there are particular concerns about.”

However, the NAHT is very aware that its members are worried about how the allocation of Pupil Premium will be protected. Although this year’s Pupil Premium funding is already decided, from April 2015 there are concerns that many parents will not register, a situation that did emerge in the schools piloting the programme.

Ms Mulholland continued: “We have asked the DfE to consider two approaches. First, to consider in the longer term the possibility of nationally determining who is eligible for FSM instead of asking parents to register themselves. We are aware that David Laws (schools minister) is open to this suggestion. 

“Second, in the shorter term, we would like to see local authorities helping their schools by providing assistance with registration. Parents can be asked to complete a simple form and the local authority can find out whether their children are entitled. Parents don’t have to bring in the documentation themselves.”

Some local authorities are doing this already, some are charging for the privilege, and others are doing nothing at all. Ms Mulholland is optimistic, as Mr Laws has now sent out a letter to the directors of children’s services to request that they support schools in the registration process. 

There are also other changes that might have implications. “There is Universal Credit to consider,” explained Ms Mulholland. “Universal Credit does not distinguish between the different benefits so there is some anxiety that this will cause further difficulties for the FSM category. The pilots for Universal Credit so far have not included families. These are just about to start and then we should get a better idea.”

In the end 

Schools will only be able to do what they can to cater for the new requirement in the time allocated. No-one can extend their buildings overnight. The problem of accommodating children in the first place is likely to be overshadowed by that of the fragility of the Pupil Premium’s reliance on FSM applications. Some schools have struggled for years to encourage their families to apply. Perhaps offering FSM to all key stage 1 children will force the issue of how families are identified and lead to a fairer distribution of funds to those children who need it most.  

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