The General Election has brought the school meals industry together to campaign to save Universal Infant Free School Meals and show the dire consequences of scrapping the policy, writes Morag Wilson.
Without evidence to show the positive effect of Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) – something that could take until the end of the year or early next year when research is published by LACA – the school meals industry was always in danger of losing its biggest policy.
At a cost of £650m a year to run, many MPs, parents and the public baulk at the expense. And it didn’t go unnoticed by the Conservatives when they were seeking cost cutting measures to publish in their General Election Manifesto, either. The party came out with the grand statement that it would end UIFSM, replacing it with a much cheaper policy to provide free breakfasts to all children in primary schools, at a cost of just £60m.
The government cited evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies that breakfasts provide just as many benefits to pupils as a school lunch does including better learning outcomes.
But soon enough, reports came out that the policy hadn’t been properly costed and the pledge was widely unpopular, not just with the school meals industry but with parents and the wider public too. It was revealed that, like with many of the pledges in the manifesto, Conservative MPs were not consulted on the decision and the school meals industry certainly wasn’t asked for advice on the realities or consequences of an end to UIFSM or a move to free breakfast provision. After all, this wasn’t just about ploughing money back into schools but would lead to job losses and even the closure of entire school catering operations.
Many head teachers felt betrayed and a letter sent to schools by former education secretary Michael Gove and former school minister David Laws in 2014 was soon revealed, highlighting the health and academic benefits of UIFSM and urging schools to invest in their kitchens as this was a “serious and long-term policy commitment”. It led to Tim Baker, head teacher at Charlton Manor Primary School, backed by a group of head teachers, to set up the Theresa May: Save free school lunches petition, which is now well over 160,000 signatures at the last count.
Of course, there is an argument that UIFSM helps parents who are able to afford a school meal for their children. But while £400 a year per child is a lot, by making it all inclusive it reduces the ‘free school meal stigma’, encompasses the ‘just about managing’ families who live just above the poverty line and are still very much below it in reality, and also encourages children to eat a school meal which is likely to be much healthier than a packed lunch.
Within a week of the Manifesto being published, the industry had come together and sent out surveys to the sector to grapple some idea of what scrapping UIFSM could mean. Using this data, they could then confidently go out to the media and to the government and make the case for UIFSM.
One of the great things about UIFSM and the School Food Plan is that it has reinvigorated the professionalism of school catering. Workforce standards are currently being finalised by LACA and thousands were employed to cope with the increase in meal uptake through UIFSM.
More than 16,800 school catering jobs would be lost, said LACA, representing 21% of the 80,000-strong school food workforce. Then, there are the industries that supply the schools sector with food, who increased their workforces to produce and distribute school food and equipment, as well as install or upgrade thousands of new kitchens. The Federation of Wholesale Distributors said the move would cost at least 250 jobs in its sector.
While some schools had to make major changes to take on the increase in school meal numbers, others had to start from scratch completely as they didn’t have a catering offer previously. The School Food Plan talks about getting meal numbers to a level that school catering can be solvent and no longer reliant on school or local authority subsidy.
Food for Life sent out a survey soon after the manifesto announcement to find out what affect scrapping UIFSM would have on the school meal provision. It found that almost 80% of respondents are very concerned about the impact that the withdrawal of UIFSM would have on their overall school lunch service. Over a third (36.8%) said they were afraid that their school kitchen might have to close altogether should it be withdrawn and this figure rises to 46.67% for schools with in-house catering and fewer than 200 pupils.
“It would definitely lead to the closure of one of our school kitchens and redundancies,” stated the Greetland Academy in its response.
A response from Little Bowden Primary School read: “Having made huge changes in order to accommodate the UIFSM this would all be at risk. The financial viability of our kitchen would be in jeopardy. All our food is sourced locally and the quality of the children’s lunches would reduce.”
At Haddenham St Mary’s Church of England School in Buckinghamshire, Karen Collett told BuzzFeed News before the election that the school would not be able to meet the costs of keeping its kitchen going. The school has 145 pupils and raised £85,000 through government grants and fundraising to install a kitchen in 2014 and two mothers trained to become full-time kitchen managers.
The Food for Life survey also revealed that the majority of respondents didn’t believe that free breakfasts represented a good alternative to UIFSM. Three-quarters of schools already ran a breakfast club and even among these schools, 97% said it wasn’t a good alternative.
“We have no space to accommodate that many children before school without using classrooms where teachers are already in at 7am working to provide the best education possible for our children. Staffing breakfast club for 270 children would be a nightmare,” stated Church Hill Infant School.
Another, Ashton Gate Primary School, suggested that to provide a breakfast with the same nutritional value as a school lunch would be “impossible”.
Many cited the practical issues of a high or full uptake of the service and the potential problems of the service eating into lesson time.
Much has been said about the costings of the £60m breakfast. The Education Datalab very quickly did the sums and discovered that the government’s policy would allocate just 7p per pupil should it achieve a high take-up, something that has caught the media’s attention to great effect, most prominently when Jamie Oliver served just 12 baked beans and half an egg to the value of 7p to guests on Channel 4’s The Last Leg on primetime.
It is worth highlighting, however, that as an industry we shouldn’t be opposing the opportunity to receive funding for a breakfast service. Breakfast clubs do a wonderful thing and provide the first meal a child has eaten since yesterday’s lunch in some worrying cases. But, as Oliver said on The Last Leg: “They need that as well, you can’t take one and then give another”.
While school meals are safe for now, thanks to a watered down Queen’s Speech on 21st June, these concerns remain very real and it is only a matter of time before the issue over the viability of UIFSM is raised again. Without strong evidence to show the benefits of UFISM it is difficult to make a case that the government will listen to, but people power is a good start. It took this announcement to discover just how many people – be they directly or indirectly affected by the policy – to show their support of it. And this fight continues. You read the petition here.