The big issue: Education

Will breakfast become the new school lunch as politicians continue to largely ignore the escalating school meal funding crisis? Jane Renton talks to Bidfood’s education champions, Andy Kemp, Gavin Squire and Pat Fellows

No-one likes being ignored – I mean repeatedly ignored. For a start, it is rude – and in this particular case, potentially calamitous. The fact is that the funding system for the 2m or so children on free school meals, which underpins the economic foundation of much of the sector, is significantly underfunded. To date, government payments have risen over the past nine years in a few measly increments – 10% in all – and considerably below other comparable public service funding increases.

There is also the issue of the way in which money for free school meals (FSM) is distributed: it’s a racket in which many cash-strapped school heads are complicit. Not only are census day take-ups deliberately inflated, but funding, which is also correlated with pupil premium, is being diverted to pay for other unrelated school activities. That ultimately harms children, some of whom live in poverty and are utterly dependent on that one nutritious hot meal at lunch, whose continuing quality is being jeopardised.

This parlous situation has been highlighted repeatedly by LACA, the sector’s main trade organisation; child poverty campaigners and school food operators; and leading suppliers, such as wholesaler Bidfood. They have done this through parliamentary channels, such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, chaired by Labour MP Sharon Hodgson.

More recently, Bidfood, as a major supplier to the sector, raised its own concerns directly in a report, collectively authored by group sales and marketing director Andy Kemp, education and health controller Gavin Squires and former LACA chair, Pat Fellows MBE. The Future of School Meals in State Schools in England was published in September of this year and was sent directly to the Department for Education (DfE) and its ministers, including former schools minister Nick Gibb, who stood down earlier this month from his role ahead of the recent cabinet reshuffle.

Despite repeated requests for a response to the report – which calls conservatively for FSM funding to be increased in line with inflation; for funding to be ring-fenced to prevent money being diverted from the meal service; and for FSM to be extended to all children whose parents receive universal credit benefits (an extension that would bring a further 1m pupils to the existing scheme) – the silence in return has been deafening. “There's a lack of creativity in the government and it is not all to do with money,” observes Kemp. “It's about engagement with society about what’s particularly important, and about those members of society who are less fortunate and have little in the way of income.”

But the battle for a fairer deal is not by any means over. The next general election is approaching. It must take place by January 2025 at the latest. And the battle will be tough. Conviction politics – doing the right thing in the public interest popular or otherwise – appears to be out of fashion, replaced by government by focus group, as the main political parties scramble to grab the policies they believe will bring in the biggest number of votes.

Will a Labour government prove any more accommodating than the Tories when it comes to school meals? The issue, as Kemp rightly points out, is about protecting the next generation “who are going to lead us in both wealth and capability”.

His colleague Fellows, who has spent much of her 50-year career in catering heading up school meal provision for the local authority in East Sussex, is clearly worried. “The Liberals and the Greens appear to be indicating that they will support the extension of eligibility to FSM, which is good,” she says. “But Labour appears to be enamoured with the idea of focusing additional resources on more breakfast provision, which is worrying.”

Breakfast is, of course, a substantially cheaper option, something that inevitably appeals to cash-strapped administrations. It’s uptake, however, remains low at an average of around 22%, well below the uptake of the main school lunch.

Provision is also highly fragmented and organised by individual schools and charities in a way that would make it hard, if not impossible, to convert or comply to a national government policy. “I think Sir Keir Starmer has seized upon this as a good political initiative, but has missed the real underlying issues,” says Kemp.

The other question regarding breakfast in schools – where some of the provision is donated by companies such as Greggs, Warburton’s and Kellogg’s, or even by individual schools and teachers buying loaves of white bread and packets of cereals – is how healthy such breakfasts really are. As that fragmented service does not generally involve trained catering staff, there must also be concerns about hygiene, allergens and food safety standards, issues that have to be legally rigidly adhered to in the lunchtime service.

But as politicians debate, the state of play in the school food sector looks perilously unsustainable. As Squires notes, parents who pay for their children’s lunch at school are being hit with price rises many cannot afford. DfE figures show that three-quarters of all state-funded schools have had to increase meal prices this year, a far greater number than in the previous academic year. Things are going backwards as far as the school food standards are concerned, as Squires says: “Some schools in some areas are now providing a packed lunch instead of a proper school meal. In some cases they’re using the cheapest bread, the cheapest cheese or spread they can get. It’s a real concern.”

But with an estimated nine out of 10 schools in England predicted to run out of money by the next school year, the temptation by heads to raid budgets for free school meal entitlement is almost overwhelming. When school meal census days are held twice a year to confirm FSM uptake, children are effectively bribed to turn up with the provision of all their favourite foods. As a result, uptake numbers often swell to 95% compared to a more normal uptake of around 69%. “Head teachers want to have as many benefited free school meals as they can have, because they get the pupil premium for each of those children, who are not necessarily encouraged to show up for school lunch on a regular basis,” explains Fellows.

Meanwhile, most caterers get only part of the allocated school meal money, which currently stands at £2.53, and moreover only get paid for the number who show up each day, as opposed to what the inflated census day figures indicate. They may in some cases receive only £2.20, which with food price inflation currently running at more than 10% in October compared to the previous year, is clearly insufficient to maintain the higher school food standards instituted in 2014.

Meanwhile, Bidfood argues that the allowance for Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) and for benefited free school meals should increase from its current £2.53 a meal to £3.29. This would take into account increases in the national living wage and food price inflation of more than 40% since UIFSM was first introduced in 2014. This would cost the government an estimated £1.3bn a year to fund, compared to under £900m currently.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, want things to move further, with an estimated additional spend of more than £500m a year to extend entitlement to FSM, and to ensure the price of them more fully reflects actual underlying costs involved. Offering free meals to all primary and secondary pupils up to year 11 would cost an estimated extra £2.5bn a year. There would also have to be significant investment to accommodate improvements to school kitchens and dining areas.

But the lack of ring-fencing of allocated money for FSM remains a problem. In the capital, mayor Sadiq Khan is in the process of extending the provision to all primary school pupils regardless of parental income during the 2023/24 academic year. However, many in the industry are already aware of the reluctance of head teachers in inner city London to advertise the new extended service to parents because surplus funding will mean more cash for individual schools to spend on other things. “We know from talking to various London authorities that head teachers are not necessarily promoting the free school meal initiative because they’re happy for parents to bring in packed lunches for their children,” warns Squires.

Meanwhile, both operators and suppliers are adapting to what has become a highly hostile environment. “We’re going to end up with fewer distributors and operators,” asserts Kemp, whose own company has recently acquired two such wholesalers.

This means less regional warehousing, and less flexible and less localised deliveries. Kemp also predicts that major service providers will withdraw from where margins are now as low as 1%. “The regionals that were behind much of the school supply are either getting out of the business or selling to much bigger wholesalers,” he adds.

The reverse, however, holds true for the major school meals providers, who are less likely, Kemp believes, to remain in the schools sector. “They won’t necessarily admit to you that this is happening, but they will make a judgement as to the areas they want to service and where they can make a profit,” he adds, saying that the school meals service is going to be predominantly offered by smaller companies, or local authorities, many of which are close to bankruptcy.

The curious thing in all of this is that most of the participants in the schools sector, Bidfood included, are passionate about what they do. It is an area of endeavour in which they fervently want to remain. The fight is not over, but increasingly it is likely to involve galvanising parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and carers to ensure that healthy hot meal provision remains in place for their children. It will be no mean feat, but harnessing that objective will be of paramount importance. “The electorate no longer believes that the government actually listens to them or that they could ever influence policy,” maintains Kemp.

But as history shows, dials can be shifted as armageddon approaches. Good health is vital for national energy and economic success. Only strong and resolute leadership can bring about the necessary reforms to ensure that children’s health, as well as a healthy school food service, become paramount once more.

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