Speculation the government may cut funding to its free school meals programme have raised concerns among teachers and campaigners.
The universal infant free school meals scheme (UIFSM) was launched in 2013 by then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and will have cost the government £1billion over the first two years.
The scheme has seen every child from Reception to Year 2 receive a daily meal, with the cost covered by government grants to authorities such as West Sussex County Council. Now there are fears Chancellor George Osborne will scrap the scheme in his November spending review.
Dawn Martin, headteacher at Gossops Green Primary School, Crawley, said there had been a large increase in the number of children eating a hot school meal since the UIFSM scheme was introduced, despite initial apprehension from parents about their children eating unfamiliar food.
Describing parents’ fears as “groundless”, she added: “In fact, quite a few children have tried ‘new’ foods because they see their friends eating and enjoying them.
“About 70 per cent of our pupils have hot dinners, although this increases when there is something popular on the menu!”
With some families struggling to make ends meet, Tobias Melia, headteacher at Our Lady Queen of Heaven School, in Langley Green, said many had been financially supported by the scheme, while the children had felt the health benefits.
He added: “It is a pity the policy is not being given longer to demonstrate impact; there is good evidence that a hot meal at lunchtimes helps children learn.”
Campaigner Richard Symonds, who for 16 years has been a vocal promoter of the importance of a hot school meal, described the idea of a funding cut as “morally wrong”.
He added: “Our children didn’t cause the financial mess which has led to these politically-motivated austerity cuts. Grown-ups did that, so why are the children and their families being punished? Local government and central government have been playing politics with our children’s health and education for too many years. It is morally wrong and should have been made legally wrong years ago. Enough is enough.”
As well as the initial £1billion outlay, the government has spent £184.5million to help schools upgrade kitchen and dining facilities.
Mrs Martin said: “It would be a great waste of public money if the massive investment in increasing the capacity of school kitchens was not value for money because they were no longer needed.”
The government has also given £32.5million in extra help to smaller schools. This included £2,300 in additional funding to schools with less than 150 pupils.
While hoping to see the scheme continue, Mr Melia was able to appreciate the Chancellor’s position.
He said: “It is understandable in the current economic climate, when everyone is being asked to economise, that the DfE looks at whether UIFSM is a good use of public money.”
The Department for Education would not confirm or deny the speculation about a cut to funding.
A spokesman said: “We believe that every child, regardless of their background, should have the same opportunities. That is at the heart of what we are doing with school food – no child should be hindered because they are not eating a nutritious meal at lunchtime. We have provided significant financial support to schools to help them deliver universal infant free school meals. We have come a long way and the new School Food Standards mean pupils of all ages are eating good food that sows the seeds for healthy eating for life.”
Despite the offer of a free school meal, thousands of infant school children in West Sussex have not been taking one. In January, a census was carried out to find out what the up-take was and, while 22,131 children had a meal, another 5,171 did not.
That number could be a cause for concern for the county council, which is facing the possibility it may have spent too much on free school meals in the past year.
While the UIFSM has been covered by a grant, the council has still been responsible for funding meals under the Dedicated School Grant for children whose parents are in receipt of eligible state benefits.
A report to the regulation, audit and accounts committee showed schools failing to use the correct ordering process and the contractor providing meals without receiving an order were among the reasons for the predicted overspend.
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