‘We don’t have time or money to serve up free school meals plan’

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira
Graphic: Graeme Bandeira
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TOWN hall chiefs have welcomed plans to provide universal free school meals to children up to the age of seven but warned they have not been given enough money or time from the Government to deliver it properly.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced the ambitious plan last year and the Government has since earmarked £150m to allow work to be carried out improving school kitchens and dining rooms by September.

The policy led to a political row, with a former advisor of Education Secretary Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings, revealing that the Liberal Democrat leader had been warned that his plan to give free school meals to every five to seven-year-old was a “bad idea” based on “junk” figures – a claim Lib Dems denied.

Of the ten education authorities in region which responded to a Yorkshire Post survey, five said the Government has not provided enough funding for the work needed to expand kitchens and dining rooms.

Council leaders have disputed Department for Education claims that they could use general maintenance funding to meet the cost.

The councils which say they are facing shortages are Barnsley, Bradford, Calderdale, Leeds and North Yorkshire.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “We have allocated more than £36m to Barnsley, Bradford, Leeds and North Yorkshire for this policy – including more than £5.5m specifically to improve kitchen and dining facilities.”

However council bosses say this includes general capital funding. Leeds Council’s executive member for schools Coun Judith Blake said: “This extra money the DfE is talking about is for general maintenance.

“We still don’t know the full cost of the work needed across schools in Leeds but it is likely that we will have to not only ask schools to contribute but also use money from this fund – but this will be at the expense of necessary school maintenance work and repairs.”

The DfE spokesman added: “All schools will receive £2.30 per meal and those with 150 pupils or fewer will receive a share of a £22.5m pot available nationally.”

“Universal free school meals have been shown, in pilots run between 2009 and 2011, to have a positive impact on pupils’ attainment and behaviour and to lead to them eating more healthy food.”

Leeds City Council said 190 schools will need expansion work with new kitchen equipment alone expected to cost £1.2m. It said more long-term capital works were needed in 20 schools, which had not yet been costed, and that it was expecting schools to have to match fund any spending on kitchen equipment.

When asked if the city could meet the September target, a spokesman added: “Yes, but only due to the actions of council officers. We are working very closely with headteachers and our school cooks to ensure that universal free school meals can be delivered in September.

“Schools will be required to adopt creative management solutions to cater for the increase in numbers expected. This could mean two or three sittings over lunch or using additional spaces within school,”

North Yorkshire County Council said another 16,000 school meals would be provided at a cost of £6.5m which is covered by a DfE grant.

However it warned that the £1.4m provided for expanding and refurbishing school kitchens would not be sufficient and it was now working on costing the work needed

Councils are set to submit returns to the DfE next week showing how they intend to deliver the new policy.