Scepticism over introduction of free school meals
16:00 25 May 2014
Teachers are sceptical about the planned introduction of free school meals for all children in the first three years of their education.
From September, pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 2 will have the option to receive dinners provided by schools without having to pay a fee, regardless of their parents’ income.
The changes, first announced by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, will see schools paid £2.30 for each meal. Mr Clegg said the change would save families up to £400 per pupil a year.
But logistically, schools are having to come up with solutions on how to deliver the policy and heads have questioned whether it is a sensible use of funds.
Alconbury headteacher Linda Dove said she hoped most parents would take up the offer because she believed it was better for pupils to have a healthy lunch.
However, she added: “I understand why the Government is doing it, but it’s going to cost an enormous amount of money that I could have used in a different way.
“We in schools have to scrimp around and make do without buying certain educational tools or replacing laptops or considering staffing cuts. I would have welcomed that money coming directly into school.”
In St Neots, Tracy Bryden, headteacher at Round House Primary School, said: “I’m not sure it’s the best use of money. There are other things, educationally, we would have liked, such as another teacher in the school.”
Lunchtimes at Roundhouse will be staggered, with reception children eating at 11.45am, followed by Year 1 from 11.55am and Year 2 five minutes later.
Mrs Bryden said, despite being a new school, the size of the kitchen was an issue because it lacked storage space. “They didn’t really make the kitchen big enough to cope with this number of meals,” she added.
Heads are also concerned the introduction of free meals could impact on the funding they receive. Previously, they received a pupil premium for every child that signed up for free meals – in 2013/14 it was £953 of extra funding per child, which rises to £1,300 from 2014/15.
Mrs Dove said: “It’s important that parents still register them for free meals as that provides us with several hundred pounds to support their child.”
Doubts have been raised elsewhere in the country about whether schools will be ready to meet the new obligation due to the scale of the changes required to their kitchens.
But a spokesman for Cambridgeshire County Council said none of the schools under its jurisdiction had needed major rebuilds, but Government funding had been spent on updating kitchen equipment and buying more essentials such as cutlery.