Councils warn free school meals underfunded

Published on Tuesday, 19 August 2014 11:40
Written by Govtoday staff

Councils and schools have been forced to divert money from other budgets to ensure the government's promise of a free school meal for all pupils aged seven and under can be delivered when the new school year begins next month, despite promises that it would be fully funded, new research shows.

Less than a month before the first meals are served, new research published by the Local Government Association (LGA) today shows that government funding to bring school kitchens up to scratch has fallen short in almost half of local authority areas in England.

Schools and councils have had to find money from elsewhere to make free school meals a reality within the government's timescale, the LGA study has found. However, councils are warning this could lead to squeezes on spending, risking unintended consequences on school maintenance budgets.

Free nutritious meals for pupils have been shown to raise attainment and improve children's health. Some 1.55 million infant-age children, aged between four and seven, will be entitled to a free meal when the new school year starts, in less than three weeks' time

The LGA estimates councils without enough money have had to find an average of £488,000 each to ensure all pupils will get the meals they will be entitled to.

Councils were given £150m from central government to fund essential capital work - such as building new kitchens - for schools to provide free meals to all infant-age pupils from September. As well as distributing this money and providing extra funds, councils have been working closely with schools and caterers to offer advice and support in the run-up to the new school year.

Schools will receive money to cover the cost of each meal separately.

Some schools will give pupils packed lunches and others will use portable kitchens to ensure meals are provided from September, while work continues on longer-term options for hot meals.

LGA research has found almost half of councils did not receive enough cash from government for the scheme in time for the start of the 2014/15 school year. Those who were short of money said the extra would be found either by them, by schools or from general school funding intended for school repairs and maintenance.

Today, councils are calling on central government to provide enough extra capital funding to make the free school meals work, now and in the future.

The LGA's survey found:

  • 47% of councils said they had not received enough money from the Department for Education to cover the full cost of work - such as kitchen improvements - needed to ensure maintained schools in their area were ready to deliver universal infant free school meals.
  • In areas without enough money, 49% said the council would contribute to the shortfall, while 37% said at least some of the shortfall would come from school funds.

Cllr David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA's Children and Young People Board, said: "When the youngest pupils go back to school next month, their mums and dads will expect them to receive a free and nutritious meal. Some councils already provided this service, and now that it has become government policy we are determined to ensure every child is provided for.

"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.

"Councils and schools have been working really hard to make this happen within this ambitious timescale. 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 government should have provided for meals.

"This 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. It is councils and schools who are picking up the bill for this work, at a time when budgets are already squeezed and tough decisions are being taken."

Source: LGA

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