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Update on universal free school meals for infants - April 2014

NAHT welcomed the government’s announcement last September that every child in reception, year one and year two in English state funded schools will receive a free school lunch from September 2014. However, we expressed concerns about the short timescales to implement such a major change

Members’ concerns included insufficient space in many schools to provide kitchen facilities and deliver hot meals as well as the need to employ additional staff. Alongside a host of concerns about how to overcome the practical implications, members are also worried about what this will mean for highlighting children eligible for the pupil premium. Without any reason for parents to indicate that they are in receipt of benefits, schools are fearful that few parents will confirm their eligibility.

NAHT has spent the last few months raising concerns with the DfE in both bilateral meetings and through involvement in the universal infant free school meals expert group and its funding sub group. Through these efforts, we have been successful in securing some key concessions from the DfE:

1: We made the point that some schools will need some capital funding as well as revenue funding to cover the cost of the meals, in order to invest in kitchens and equipment. The DfE have now confirmed that in the first year, £150 million will be available as a capital budget to support schools in implementing the policy. This will be allocated to local authorities and to the academies capital and maintenance fund based on pupil numbers as at the January 2013 census. The DfE may make additional funding available to support schools with exceptional difficulties.

However, disappointingly, the short timescales to plan this policy mean that this funding has been allocated to all local authorities based on pupil numbers, and has not been ring fenced with the result that:
  1. some local authorities will not receive sufficient funding to meet the requirements of all the schools in their area in terms of building works or equipment to deliver the policy; and
  2. whilst others who have already invested in their school meals service like pilot local authorities in Newham and Durham may be tempted to divert the funding to other policies.
2: We also made the case that for some schools, it may not be possible to get everything in place to deliver hot meals by next September, especially where schools currently have no kitchen or catering contract in place. Whilst we support the aspiration that all schools should provide infants with a hot school lunch, we lobbied for the government to allow such schools to provide a packed lunch that meets the nutritional standards, at least for the first year. The government have agreed to this concession.

3: We also set out to the DfE the scale of the challenge for some schools, and highlighted the need for schools to have access to specialist advice, including school based consultancy advice. The DfE have accepted this point and tendered for a service to support schools. The contract for implementation support for schools has been won by a consortium of the children’s food trust and local authorities’ caterers’ association (LACA) who will offer schools five types of support:

  • regional road shows to discuss their issues and identify support and ideas from the end of March;
  • a first line advice line for any school to get particular information. This will then triage those who need more support;
  • they will in the first instance be eligible for detailed handholding telephone advice – up to seven week’s worth of one hour phone calls;
  • they may also offer them a site visit to a neighbouring school to see how they could approach the issues – hosting schools will be paid £100 for each such visit; and
  • for those schools that need the greatest help, it is expected that about 5,000 can get face to face consultancy support which can go up to 3 days – they will be charged £260 for this.

On 6 March, the DfE wrote to all schools confirming the revenue arrangements:

  • Schools will be told what revenue funding they will get in June, but they can work out what they will get now as it will be a payment assuming funding of £2.30 a child for 87 per cent of the children who don’t already get free school meals.
  • The first payment for September will cover two term’s funding at 87 per cent - the payment for the summer term will reconcile so that if schools had take up over 87 per cent, they’ll get more for the third term, but if they got less then they may get less funding for the third term.
  • The letter also set out the details of how they will fund smaller schools of less than 150 children – we still haven’t sent this proposal.

What was clear from this is that schools will still need to fund the meals for the children who are eligible for free school meals separately (from the DSG) from the children who wouldn’t otherwise get them who will be funded through this policy.

Impact on the pupil premium

Whilst we remain concerned about the implementation of this policy generally, our key area of concern remains the likely impact on of the policy on the pupil premium if families no longer have to disclose their benefits status in order for their child to receive a free school meal. We are pressing the DfE to consider data sharing with DWP and HMRC to support schools in identifying those who should benefit from the pupil premium. HMRC and DWP have the information about which families receive which benefits and should be able to communicate with local authorities and schools to tell them who is eligible for the pupil premium, rather than expecting this information to be collected at a local level and with great difficulty.

Nationally, the DfE’s latest figures show that 11 per cent of those eligible for registration for free school meals are not registered, and are currently missing out on free school meal, but also on pupil premium funding for their school to support them better. However, there are enormous regional differences in this with some areas where up to 33 per cent of those children eligible missing out.

A number of factors play into these variances but a key one is how supportive and proactive a local authority is in supporting schools to enable parents to register. Some schools need to ask to see all the evidence that parents receive the particular benefits, a bureaucratic hurdle that will lead to really low registrations, whilst some local authorities are happy to check eligibility through the online eligibility checking service of DWP and HMRC data as long as the parent has given their national insurance number and permission for the local authority to perform this check.

NAHT is concerned that the free school meals policy will see a decline in pupil premium take up, as initially the experience of the free school meals pilots in Wolverhampton, Newham and Durham. They had to put additional effort in to address this with very supportive local authorities so that Newham and Durham now have 100 per cent registration and Wolverhampton had 94 per cent.

In order to address this issue, NAHT is pressing:

  • in the short term for advice for schools on how to facilitate the registration for free school meals. The DfE toolkit of good practice for the policy (page 12 of the document at http://goo.gl/08WTkC) is not really helpful enough on this issue and schools and local authorities need to be made aware of the whole range of options; and
  • in the long term, for government data sharing to provide the information about pupil premium eligible children to schools so that we move away from school level registration.

We have been publically lobbying on these points of interest to members and also raised these points in a meeting with David Laws on 20 March. He was very receptive and suggested that:

  • the DfE will provide better advice to schools and more advice directly to local authorities on securing pupil premium registrations; and
  • he is pushing forward the potential for government data sharing and is relatively optimistic about this.
Page Published: 04/04/2014