The latest educational initiative to provide all infant schoolchildren with a free school meal will have a huge impact on most primary schools operational budget. Essentially no school had budgeted for such a project and its significant cost will rob other projects.
In biblical parlance this is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Educational budgets set to provide key elements of operational equipment and teaching resources are constantly being raided to fund un-budgeted educational initiatives. It appears the hard work and financial prudence maintained by school head teachers is to their disadvantage. Any cash left in the kitty is being reallocated to pay for the latest fad adopted by the government. The best policy is to set the school capital expenditure budget for expenditure during the first quarter. Then spend the lot. Not as easy as it sounds as the project management needed to effect the purchase of all the equipment needed would absorb a huge amount of teachers time, but the alternative to delay holds risks of budget reallocation.
The basis of the free school meals programme is laudable. Research proves the attentiveness and academic progress of infant school children is enhanced through effective nourishment. This should pose no great shock but the dietary habits and running costs of a family with young children during a recession has given for concern. But this initiative holds a Catch22. The government plan provides additional support to cover the material cost of free school meal but the costs of staff, storage and preparation of the meals have to met by the school. This poses a dilemma. If the teaching resources budget is to be raided to pay for free meals to improve academic performance how will this be offset by the reduction in budgeted teaching resources.
The government plans to support the cost of the food, but the provision of facilities to support the service in school is to be met from existing school budgets. This includes staffing, storage and serving equipment which amounts to a tidy sum for the average primary school. Adopting a cold sandwich policy rather than hot food ( the governments original plan) will reduce the cost but still at around £60k for some primary schools the hit on teaching resources is colossal.
School head teachers are already critical of the policy. They claim the money would have been better spent on improving teaching resources proven to provide a better chance of improving performance than possibly the effect from free meals. Once again a government educational policy is running into severe criticism immediately it had been launched. The feedback from head teachers should have been assessed during the planning stage. As the introduction date looms – just over a month away, around 2,500 primary schools have indicated that do not have the cash to provide the service and will therefore become illegal. This will place a hidden load on the teaching team as they attempt the teaming and ladling approach defend themselves. The sad truth is that any teacher worth their salt would grab any opportunity to improve the academic ability of their children. But this meal policy may follow the one foot forward two steps back syndrome.