Ever since its announcement at last year’s Liberal Democrat party conference, the government’s decision to grant every child aged 5-7 a free school meal has been dogged by controversy.
Aside from it being questionable that in excess of £600million of taxpayers’ cash should be spent feeding the offspring of very affluent families (children from the poorest families have long received free school meals, irrespective of the child’s age), this politically motivated gimmick has been beset with eminently foreseeable difficulties from day one.
From councils across the country (though thankfully not in Stockton) having to dip into their own education budgets to pay for kitchen improvements (the grant from central government proving insufficient) to thousands of schools unlikely to have the work completed by the first week of term in September, the implementation of the policy has been shambolic. So much so, faced with the number of schools who will be forced to provide meals cooked off-site and then re-heated, or even unable to provide a hot meal at all, the government has quietly dropped the obligation on schools to provide a hot meal.
But whilst these issues could be argued to be temporary, and relatively easily remedied, one enduring problem with the policy will continue to impact schools for years to come.
One of the Lib Dem’s proudest – dare I say rightly so – achievements in government is the introduction of the Pupil Premium.
The Pupil Premium is additional funding given to publicly funded schools throughout England to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils hailing from the poorest families. During the financial year 2014/15, primary schools will receive an additional £1,300 for each eligible child. These payments soon add up to sizeable sums of money.
Here in the borough of Stockton on Tees, our primary schools registered anywhere up to 74.1% of pupils being eligible for the Pupil Premium – nearly three times the national average. Rosebrook Primary School, to give but one example, received £203,942 in 2013/14 (when the premium was set at just £953 per pupil).
The difficulty such schools face going forward is that eligibility to receive the pupil premium is based on whether a child has been eligible for free school meals at any point during the past 6 years. Given all pupils aged 5-7 will now automatically receive a free meal, their parents will no longer have to apply and prove their eligibility to the local authority, and by extension the school.
The upshot of this is that primary schools throughout the country will not necessarily know which or how many of their Year 1 pupils are eligible for free school meals, and without any previous record of them having been eligible, thereby leaving the school unable to apply for the additional pupil premium for those otherwise eligible pupils. This could easily see primary schools losing tens of thousands of pounds of additional funding.
Upon asking the question of Stockton Council in July, I was pleased to hear that the council has been working with the governing bodies of local schools to encourage parents to still register their eligibility for free school meals and the pupil premium irrespective of the fact their child(ren) will receive a free meal nevertheless. Whilst it’s pleasing the council is ostensibly ahead of the curve on this issue, it is ludicrous they have been put in this position in the first place.
Councillors from all across the country will be aware of eligible families who haven’t previously registered for free school meals, be it through ignorance of their eligibility or embarrassment at having to do so. Indeed, this was used as one of the justifications for the expansion of free school meals to all infants.
But how many more families will fall into this category when there is no tangible financial benefit to them in them doing so? It seems inevitable that we will see the number of infants recorded as eligible for the Pupil Premium fall as a direct consequence of the new free school meal policy.
It is impossible to say whether this looming crisis was foreseen by the government or simply overlooked, although given I wrote a blog last September highlighting the problem (here) it simply isn’t plausible to claim nobody in government saw this coming.
What seems for more likely is that George Osborne did indeed anticipate these difficulties but saw reduced Pupil Premium payments to schools as a means of contributing to the cost of the additional free school meals. Once again it seems the Conservative part of the government is happy to take away from the poorest in society to the benefit of their more affluent core vote.