The headline in today’s Guardian above an almost universally negative article about the Free School Meals initiative is indicative of the feelings of many educationalists about the policy: frustration at the funding, unhappiness at a lack of consultation, and too often an apparent unwillingness to look beyond the obvious tried and tested solution.
Firstly the money issue. Schools in Oxfordshire charge £2.00 at present for a meal, but will receive £2.30 per meal taken from September, so there should be a greater contribution towards serving costs than at present. As to a small chain of academies having to employ a catering supervisor, as mentioned in the Guardian article, this really demonstrates the dis-economies of scale of small academy chains. In 1974, the debate about local government re-organisation centred on whether an authority with 250,000 citizens was large enough to manage a school system. In the market-based world of the past quarter century this sort of debate about size and efficiency has been thrown out along with the bath water. No doubt the failure of an academy chain today, the first such failure, will be seen as partly due to economic rather than educational reasons, especially as it had no geographical integrity to the group of schools it oversaw. Perhaps this might re-open the debate about size and effectiveness of schooling.
Finally, on the money issue, many local primary schools once again under spent their budgets in 2013-14 despite locally submitting budgets showing that they would draw down several million pounds of reserves. It is in my view entirely appropriate to use some of this cash to introduce the free school meals policy.
Where there has been a failure is probably over the discussions between politicians and teachers’ leaders, especially the leaders of the heads associations and the governors. Confrontational politics makes for interesting times, but can inhibit the smooth operation of government. I don’t advocate a return to the days when a small cabal sat around a table and decided everything, but under the present approach a policy that needed to win the schools’ hearts and minds didn’t even attempt to do so; sadly, the leaders of my Party don’t seem to have fully understood that basic tenant of leadership.
The policy of free meals does have real benefits, they may not all be directly educational, but with the growth of zero hours contracts they will ensure no child loses out on lunch because of the form filling required of parents; and mothers, since it is they that usually either find the money or buy the packed lunch in many households, will see an extra £400 or so in their purses from September onwards.
I would like to see more of the ‘can do’, but after six years of economic hardship I suppose the present attitude is only to be expected. And to the head juggling building work, child protection issues, teaching and learning, and the introduction of free school meals: that’s the reality of leadership.