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How to implement a policy: universal free school meals

London’s Mayor still needs to figure out the financing, staffing and investment to deliver his flagship pledge, according to those affected by the policy.

By Samir Jeraj

In February, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a sweeping new policy: from September 2023, all primary school children in the capital will be eligible for free school meals.

Across England, “infants” (children in reception and years 1 and 2) have had free school meals since 2014. Expanding the initiative to all children in primary schools puts London on a par with Scotland and Wales. Both devolved nations have been extending free school meals in phases to all primary school children since 2022.

In London, Khan plans to spend £130m on providing meals to 270,000 more children for one year. The idea is not completely new in the capital. Several London councils already have free school meals in place for all primary school children. But for many the gap between the policy’s announcement and its implementation is still great.

Neil Miller, the deputy chief executive of the London South East Academies Trust, a group of 9 schools, supports Khan’s policy. In fact, the trust already provides free meals to all pupils in some of its schools, along with breakfast clubs. He is concerned, however, about how it will work, the costs of delivery, and who will end up paying.

“We’ve had absolutely nothing at [the academy] trust level from the Greater London Authority,” he told New Statesman Spotlight. “The implications are that schools have got to try and budget for something that they don’t even know about yet.”

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The policy was announced at a time when 90 per cent of schools in England are facing real-terms funding cuts. Currently, the trust tops up the funding it gets for free school meals because there is a shortfall between the money it gets and the costs of provision. The gap is around 83p per meal, which across London would add up to £39m extra per year that schools would potentially have to find. They will need to hire more canteen staff directly or through contractors, together with the people to manage them. Schools may also need to increase kitchen capacity with more ovens and microwaves, for instance, as well as extending buildings that might not have the required space for such expansions.

But one of the key sticking points is how the policy will affect the pupil premium funding that is available to schools from the government. Primary schools are granted £1,345 of extra funding for every child who receives free school meals (or has in the previous six years), with the aim of improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. Making free meals universal creates a challenge, as schools need to know which children would be eligible for the pupil premium so that they can claim the extra funding. Impetus, a charity, has warned that schools could lose out on £5m a year in pupil premium funding because of this.

Miller believes there should have been a conversation with schools before the policy was announced. And there are other, more practical ways, of expanding free meals, he suggested. Schools could start with breakfasts, increasing coverage in secondary schools. They could also raise the threshold for free school meals over a certain period, first expanding coverage to children who are just outside of the current system. This would give schools time to adapt.

“The infrastructures, the administration, the organisation of the whole thing is huge, and actually, they should have gone back and spoken to school leaders,” he said.

Brad Pearce, chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association (Laca), welcomed London’s move to expand free school meals, but has advised caution too.

His day job is running the school meals service in Plymouth. The key challenge for them and other providers, according to Pearce, is clarity around funding. Currently, the amount they get for free school meals for eligible children is £2.41 per meal, a sum caterers are already struggling with amid rising prices.

“We’ve seen food inflation of between 50 and 70 per cent across the staple items that we need to put on the plate to meet the school food standards,” said Pearce. The cost and availability of new equipment that may need to be installed over the summer holidays is also a challenge. In 2014, ahead of the roll-out of free school meals to children in reception and years 1 and 2, there was a nine-month period in which schools and providers could access funding to ready their infrastructure, said Pearce, but Khan’s policy has not specified such a condition.

[See also: Right or left? How we solve the cost-of-living crisis]

“We didn’t have any indication that this is going to happen,” said Leigh Powell, a national officer at Unison, a trade union representing kitchen staff in schools. “It was announced in the press over a weekend.” Unison supports the plan, Powell clarified, but she is concerned that her members are effectively being asked to double the number of meals they prepare in a matter of months – without any consultation on what they need to deliver on the policy.

“The people who work in school kitchens, they’re low-paid women. And I’m not sure if other workforces would be subject to something like that,” she added.

Unison estimates that the scheme in London will mean hiring 15 to 20 per cent more staff. “We’re dealing with a situation where there are huge staff shortages,” said Powell. Working in school catering is often a low-paid and low-hours jobs. A job advert for “Qualified & Experienced Kitchen Assistants /Kitchen Porters” in Islington lists the pay as £10.42 an hour, the minimum wage (£1.53 an hour less than the London living wage).

Powell is not confident that London’s schools will be ready with universal free meals when the new school year begins. “There are lots of problems to overcome before September, and much as we would love for them to be overcome, I’m not sure they would be able to,” she said.

But within the capital itself there are examples of such a feat being accomplished. Westminster City Council began its own programme in January 2023, after Labour won the local elections there seven months earlier.

“It’s made a real difference in terms of making sure that everyone is included in those schools, getting decent quality food, and helping us to respond to some of those challenges when it comes to living prices, because it’s effectively saving £550 per child a year,” Adam Hug, leader of Westminster City Council, told Spotlight.

The council worked with primary schools to understand how to make the transition smoother, including funding meals at £3 each and expanding their capacity. Westminster’s initial plan was to deliver universal free school meals in primary schools for 18 months. With the new funding from the Mayor of London the council is looking at extending free school meals to nursery children and children up to Key Stage 3 in secondary schools from September.

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: “Since the announcement was made that the Mayor would be providing an emergency £130m to provide free school meals to primary school pupils in the capital for the next academic year, the Mayor’s team have been working closely with schools, councils and partners to inform the implementation of this unprecedented policy.

“As part of this work, it has been proposed that £2.65 will be provided per meal – almost 10 per cent more than the Government currently funds for free school meals. The Mayor’s team are aware of the risks regarding pupil premium and will be working with schools and boroughs to support best practice. This includes strongly encouraging the adoption of a universal registration model which helped increase pupil premium income in Islington.”

For Miller and other school leaders, and for Pearce and Powell, this still leaves them without the answers they need to prepare. School leaders will already be working towards this. The hope is that there will be enough funding to overcome those challenges in time for the scheme’s start this September – but time is running out for schools to know for sure.

This piece has been amended to correct the assertion that the free school meals scheme will potentially be expanded to secondary schools. The Mayor’s office has also provided an updated statement with a figure for per meal funding. 

[See also: How the universal public services can end the cost-of-living crisis]

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