The Government introduced a £4bn increase in funding for schools for this financial year, representing what the Department for Education has said is a seven per cent increase in per pupil funding.
But during Education Questions in Parliament yesterday, MPs highlighted that the costs facing schools are rising at a faster rate - leaving many headteachers facing unpalatable decisions about how to balance their books.
Holly Lynch, the Labour MP for Halifax, said: "I have spoken to local headteachers who report that due to inflation staffing costs have increased 12 per cent, gas 20 per cent and electricity costs by 30 per cent.
"One headteacher said to me, 'Please ask the Secretary of State what am I supposed to cut in order to meet inflation costs? The mental health first aider we have had to recruit because of backlogs at CAHMS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services)? The resources we have had to put into a community kitchen because so many children were going without meals? Should I turn off the heating or simply cut teaching staff?'
She added: "What would the Minister like me to say to that headteacher?"
Schools Minister Robin Walker highlighted the "£4bn, seven per cent increase" in schools funding that has come in this year.
He said: "The department also helps schools get best value from their resources from a range of resource management tools. This includes recommended deals for energy and support for schools in switching and entering new energy contracts. I would encourage them to engage with that programme. Of course, we all want to make sure these important priorities of schools can be addressed."
Dame Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, said: "I recent visited Hall Road Primary School which was built in the 1920s in a very disadvantage part of Hull but providing an excellent education to pupils.
"What the headteacher told me was that the rising costs in energy were really hitting his limited budget for the school."
She asked whether it would be possible to meet with Mr Walker both to discuss what potential emergency funding could be given to school and whether it could receive a new school building.
Mr Walker replied that an announcement would soon be made on what schools have qualified for the latest round of the Government's Schools Rebuilding Programme.
He added: "Of course I would be happy to meet with the Honourable Lady and hear about particular conditions in the school. I recognise there is much of our school estate that faces these challenges with ageing buildings and it is important we continue to invest and support them where they can spend to save."
Labour MP Ruth Cadbury added: “Schools are telling us that standstill funding, inflation and rising energy costs mean they’re having to limit the numbers of healthy options in school meals.
“The Government agrees with us that good, healthy school meals are essential for children to be able to thrive, especially as for more and more children school dinner is their only hot meal.
“Yet the schools minister has said in relation to school meals it was up to schools to ‘manage their own individual budgets’. Is that the best the Government can serve up?”
Mr Walker replied: “Our increases in school funding have been frontloaded to rapidly get money to the schools; this year core schools funding is increasing by £4 billion… our national formula also targets this funding towards deprivation, it includes a FSM (free school meals) factor, which means all pupils on free school meals will attract additional funding.
“The total amount allocated through deprivation factors in the national formula is increasing by £225 million or 6.7% in the next year compared to last year.”
For Labour, shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan also said: “Sky-rocketing energy bills are squeezing school budgets.
“The latest data suggests prices have almost doubled in the first quarter of this year alone, with cost pressures putting children’s learning at risk.”
He asked when the Government will bring forward extra support to help schools “keep the lights on”.
Mr Walker reiterated that additional funding was in place and flagged data relating to the end of the last academic year, which he said showed 97% of academy trusts were in “cumulative surplus or breaking even” and 92% of local authority maintained schools were in that situation.
“An improvement in both cases from the year before,” he added.
Earlier in the day, children and families minister Will Quince said he recognises schools are “not immune” to the cost-of-living crisis but they must manage their own budgets.
His comments came as the school food caterers’ association Laca warned the quality of school meals will get worse if funding is not ring-fenced by the Government.
Mr Quince said the Government has “really clear school food standards, which are all about healthy, nutritious meals for children while they’re at school”.
“I recognise the global inflationary pressures that the school catering sector and schools are not immune from – that’s why we’ve put an extra £7 billion over the course of the spending review period into schools, an additional £4 billion of that this year,” he told the PA news agency.
He said this is also why the Universal Infant Free School Meal funding rate uplift was extended last month.
The Government raised the rate by 7p per pupil, backdated to April 1, with all pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 getting £2.41 per meal rather than £2.34.
Campaigners said the rise falls far short of inflation.
Mr Quince said he will “continue to work with the sector and watch this very closely because I’ve got to ensure that children up and down the country are getting a healthy nutritious meal at lunchtime”.
Asked about schools being pushed into deficit if they tried not to pass on rising food costs to pupils, he said the additional £7 billion will help schools with this but they need to “manage their own individual budgets”.
He said he will speak to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who will in turn speak with the Treasury about how to better support schools and families.
A survey by Laca found that 90 per cent of caterers are experiencing food shortages because of supply chain issues and rising food costs, while nearly eight in 10 – 78 per cent – had had to change or reduce menu options because of supply chain problems.
In the survey of 170 Laca members, carried out between May 19 and 25, 40% said they were worried they would not be able to meet the school food standards in the new academic year, while more than half – 55 per cent – said school food quality will get worse if things do not improve.
Laca said the cost of staples such as minced beef had risen by 11 per cent overnight in recent days.
The association also raised concerns that some children are “falling through the cracks” due to the cost-of-living crisis.
Laca said 57% of its members have seen a fall in uptake of paid meals, despite 54 per cent reporting that free school meals eligibility has increased, which means that many children who need free school meals are missing out as a result of the cost-of-living crisis, it said.
It said the 2.9% increase in Universal Infant Free School Meals is “insufficient” to cope with the challenges faced by the industry and called on the Government to increase funding in line with free school meals, from £2.41 per meal to £2.47 per meal.
Laca said it supports recommendations made by the National Food Strategy to raise the threshold of free school meals eligibility to £20,000 per annum – currently only families with an annual household income of £7,400 or below are eligible, after tax and excluding benefits.
The Government did not adopt this recommendation as part of its Food Strategy, published in June.
Mr Quince said he will “continue to explore” this suggestion.
“It’s certainly something I can continue to explore and look at – what’s really important with free school meals in particular is that we target the support that we have to the most vulnerable and those lowest paid – that’s exactly what we do at the moment.”
Laca is calling for all school meals funding to be ring-fenced. Its survey found that more than one-third of caterers – 34 per cent – have considered using more processed food in meals, and that 38 per cent said they do not receive the full £2.47 from schools per meal.
Laca national chairwoman Jacquie Blake said the findings are an “urgent wake-up call” and warned that without adequate funding, the “most vulnerable children” will miss out on their only hot meal of the day.
She added: “Too many children are already falling through the cracks – their families cannot afford a paid school meal, but they are not eligible for free school meals.”
Some school leaders said they are desperately trying not to allow rising food costs to affect the quality of school meals but that this is stretching their budgets in other areas.
James Bowen, policy director at the NAHT school leaders’ union, said all households are seeing “sharply rising costs” and it “cannot help but impact schools and school meals”.
“Schools will be working with their suppliers to maintain quality and to try and keep costs down for families but that means absorbing higher costs into already tightly squeezed budgets. As always, this means a choice on what to cut spending on elsewhere,” he said.
Paul Gosling, NAHT president and headteacher of Exeter Road Community Primary School in Devon, said his school has held off increasing meal costs to avoid putting pressure on families, but added: “At the moment, the school is absorbing the increased cost but it is not sustainable.”
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