Food for thought

Last Friday the DfE published its annual census data on schools. This deals with the number of schools and also provides details about the number of pupils. The headlines, larger classes and larger schools, were well covered by the media. The increases in pupil numbers were not unexpected, although the increase in average class size at KS2, while average class sizes at KS1 remained the same, might not have been predicted by everyone.

Average class sizes in the primary sector are now larger than a decade ago, but remain 1.4 pupils per teacher smaller than in 2006 across the secondary sector as a whole. Average class sizes in the primary sector are at their smallest in parts of the North East, where the growth in pupil numbers hasn’t really happened yet and largest in parts of outer London where they are approaching 30 pupils per teacher in both Sutton and Harrow at 29.6:1. Several other London boroughs have average class sizes of over 29 pupils per teacher.

However, one table that interested me and hasn’t been widely reported on was the take-up of school meals. This was the first year of the free school meals for infant pupils. At the census, the average take-up of school lunches by infant pupils was 85.6%. However, since pupils absent on the day are included in the overall total, the actual take up by pupils present in school was presumably somewhat higher than that in schools where some pupils were absent. Redcar in the North East had the highest take-up at 94.5% of it infant school population if you exclude the 100% in the City of London’s one primary school. Not far behind were a group of six London boroughs that included Kingston and Islington. At the other end of the table were Brighton and Hove, at just 70.5% take-up and Oxfordshire with the second lowest figure of 77.4% take-up. These authorities were followed closely by Thurrock, Medway and Hillingdon. The south east had the lowest take-up of any region at just over 81% whereas Inner London averaged over 90% take-up, closely followed by the North East region.

It is difficult to know what to read into these figures on take-up. Are families in affluent areas happy to ignore the free meals on offer or were these authorities where the meals service had collapsed after the assault on provision during the Thatcher years? The former clearly doesn’t work everywhere as a reason, otherwise places like Kingston upon Thames would not be so close to the top of the list. Perhaps, parents in these areas understand the value of the £400 of saving taking up the free meal deal can provide, especially when the alternative is spending income taxed at 40%.

It isn’t a rural urban divide either, so may be some other factor is at work. As a councillor in Oxfordshire I will be asking questions about why the take-up is so low locally? But, the Tory cabinet member was always opposed to the free school meals policy, so that may have had some effect.

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