No such thing as a free school lunch? Government ‘reckless’ in failing to provide adequate school funds

Botched rollout of scheme revealed as teachers slam impact of flagship Lib Dem policy

The Government’s pledge to provide free meals for all four- to seven-year-olds from next month is leaving schools without funds to improve their classrooms, council leaders warn today.

Millions of pounds have been diverted to fund the policy, which headteachers condemned last night as a “reckless” failure in planning that critics warned will leave schools in an “invidious position”.

Councils are facing a shortfall of more than £25m to deliver the scheme – and are having to resort to taking the money away from much‑needed repair programmes aimed at improving standards and facilities in classrooms.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has championed the policy as “one of the most progressive changes to our school system for a long time”, but it has raised fears among teachers that the cuts will have an impact on class sizes, support services for disadvantaged children and even jobs, as decisions are made by schools on where to cut.

A survey by the Local Government Association revealed a shortfall of £25,866,133 in paying for the scheme – with one council, Kent, facing a deficit of £4.3m by itself. Local government officials said the actual figure was likely to be much higher as not every council had responded to their survey.

Read more: Hot potato: The expansion of free school meals has been mishandled

The revelation caused an outcry from teachers’ leaders, who said the Government had been “outrageous and reckless” in failing to earmark enough cash to deliver the pledge. The scheme, spearheaded by Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, has already caused a rift in government circles with the former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings claiming that the scheme was a “gimmick” that had been “dreamt up on the back of a fag packet”.

 

David Simmonds, Conservative chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “There’s no doubt that dishing up a nutritious lunch for every young pupil will improve the experience of school and help them concentrate in lessons.

“But it cannot be right that for some councils money set aside for maintenance has instead had to be spent plugging the shortfall in money which the Government should have provided for meals.

“The research makes it clear central government has not provided schools with enough money to do the essential work necessary to give 1.5 million children a free meal at lunchtime.”

Councils were given £150m to fund essential capital work such as building kitchens but some schools will have to give pupils packed lunches or use portable kitchens to supply food until the work is completed. Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, said: “Free school meals are an important initiative. However, it is outrageous and reckless that the Government has failed to adequately fund this provision and expects local authorities to make up the shortfall at a time of these deep cuts.”

The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s school-lunch scheme was criticised as being ‘dreamt up on the back of a fag packet’ The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s school-lunch scheme was criticised as being ‘dreamt up on the back of a fag packet’ (Getty) Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “This is another example of the Government giving with one hand and taking away with the other. It is wrong that local councillors find themselves in the invidious position of having to cut other essential services like school maintenance to meet the cost of the introduction of free school meals.”

Video: Nick Clegg discusses benefits of free school meals

Opposition MPs also rounded on the Government for creating the shortfall in spending. A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “Providing free school meals will help children do better in school as well as helping them to eat more healthily while saving hard-working taxpayers up to £400 a year. We have provided significant financial support to schools to help them deliver the policy.”

Case study: Kitchen capability

By Serina Sandhu

Godington Primary School in Ashford, Kent, may struggle to provide free school meals for its Key Stage One pupils in time for September’s implementation of the new scheme.

The school, where dinners currently cost £2.20 a day, does not have the appropriate kitchen facilities to cope with the resulting extra meals.

“Under the new proposals, we might have to cook up to 240 meals each day,” the headteacher, Jim Holditch, told Kent Online. “I seriously doubt whether the kitchen facility can cope with this number.”

Although Kent County Council has been allocated £2.7m to carry out any necessary construction work on kitchens to help schools provide the free meals, the council is also facing a government-funding shortfall of £4.3m, making it the worst hit of all 29 counties.

A Conservative councillor, Richard Gough, said: “Schools are having to use money creatively.”

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