Government lets down schools in Cornwall on UIFSM – again

I have made it no secret that the implementation (thought support the concept) of the Universal Infant Free School Meal (UIFSM) has been a shambles.This is not due to the hard work of Cornwall Council, Cormac and schools who in a tight widow manage to upgrade 112 school kitchens, but how this whole programme has been funded by the Government/DfE

The cost of the work to upgrade 112 kitchens – out of 236 primary schools – totalled £1.4m but, and this is a big but, the DfE only funded £846,000 of this amount. This resulted in Cornwall Council have to go cap-in-hand to the Schools Forum who luckily and thankfully agreed to fund the £555,000 shortfall. This was not free money, as if the UIFSM was funded properly, then this money could have been spent elsewhere on Education.  However, even this additional funded from the Schools Forum was still not enough to do some of the schools that had functioning kitchens, but really needed to be upgraded. So sadly, these kitchens were not upgraded.

Late last year, there was a glimmer of hope on UIFSM funding with the Government announcing a further pot of funding for kitchens. This would enable those schools that narrowly missed out to have the kitchen upgrades they needed. Cornwall Council put in a strong bid for six schools totalling £360,000. I was really hopeful the Government would support our request, but today, the news was not good. Out of the six bids, five have been turned down. I learnt initially not from an email or letter from the DfE, but from their website.

On a positive, I am pleased Stithians Primary School has had its bid approved, but it is very bad news for the five bids that did not. The maintained primary schools which have been let down are: Menheniot, Pencoys, Pensans, St Agnes and St Francis CE Primary Schools. Without this funding, there is no clear way on how we are going to be able to cover this. In fact, there is a real danger these schools will not get the upgrades they need unless we find the funding from elsewhere. This will result in other areas of the Council’s school budget having to be reduced to pay for this – even if this funding can be found!

I am really annoyed and incredibly disappointed by this Government decision: or should I say shortsightedness.  This is a Government policy which has been dropped on Local Authorities to deal with. The implementation of this policy has been made more difficult because the policy has not been thought out and not funded properly. Local Authorities up and down the land are having to deal with reduced budgets and increased demand on services, but thinks it is ok to add to our budgetary woes with dumping other problems.

I wonder if a Government Minister would like to explain to the parents, pupils and teaching staff at those five schools on the Governments failure to properly fund their idea.  This is the second time the Council and the people of Cornwall have been let down by the lack of Government funding for Univerisal Infant Free School Meals………once was bad enough, but this, well…. is beyond a joke.

Universal Infant Free School Meals in Cornwall

Monday saw the start of a new school year. For those children in KS1 they will see the introduction of a free school meal (UIFSM) for all in that Key Stage. The reason for this is the Government believes that children having a meal at school is better for their learning and attainment; and anything that helps with a child’s education is surely a good thing?

For Cornwall, the project of UIFSM has not been plain sailing. In fact, implementing this project could have ended in disaster due to the lack of forethought on implementation by the Government. As local authorities and schools across the land pointed out many schools do not have adequate kitchen facilities, or even kitchens at all to implement this new Government policy. This resulted in the Government having to make available funding for new kitchens. However, the award of this funding did seemed without logic and based on pupil numbers rather than what facilities were needed. In Cornwall, excluding most academies who applied to the EFA directly, the Council was given £846k to deliver a project costed £1.4 million. A half a million shortfall in funding. This put the Council in a very difficult position of how to fund this shortfall and still deliver the programme by September 2014.

At first and to make sure the project could be delivered, money was taken from the schools maintenance money to fund this project. Of course the Council asked the Government for this shortfall, but were rebuffed and told to fund it out of existing budgets. Not really helpful when we are delivering their project.

The impact on the school maintenance fund and how that would have affected schools would have not been good. However, so no school was put at a disadvantage in their maintenance programme, the Schools Forum agreed to fund this shortfall out of the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG). I am grateful to the School Forum for agreeing to fund this. This money is still school money and therefore could have been spent elsewhere, rather than finding a shortfall.

To make this project deliverable the Council undertook a large evolution of surveying kitchens, and from those surveys nearly half needed new facilities and updated facilities. In fact out of those 112 which needed work, 80% needed large-scale works with a couple of schools had to have completely new kitchens. There was an added pressure of most of the work could only be carried out over the summer holiday period.

It is to huge credit to the teams at Cornwall Council and Cormac who delivered all but three schools on time. The three schools who could not be treated on time will be still able to provide a packed lunch as a very temporary measure for a week or so.

Now the kitchens have been provided, the school are now able to provide those meals to the infants. It is up to the schools and the governing body if all infants receive a meal, or it is an opt-in option.

Furthermore, If the Government expands the free school meal programme into KS2, then I urge the Government to talk to schools and local authorities first to see what they need Rather than putting additional pressures on schools and local authorities to deliver in increasing budget pressures again caused by the stinging cuts to local government.

Cornwall Council face a funding shorfall for free school meals

The Government announced from September 2014 that all KS1 pupils (4-7 year olds) will receive a free school meal. It is an idea which I support, though it should also include KS2, if we really want to make a difference.  Since this announcement, Cornwall Council has been reviewing the school meal and kitchen facility provision in Cornwall. The aim of this review was to understanding of what kitchen improvements need to be done before September.

This survey identified the costs of carrying out adaptations to existing school kitchens, building new kitchens – where required – and the purchasing and installation of new equipment will cost £1.275m. This costing has been reviewed and reviewed to make sure it is best value. However, and this is the kicker, the Government in its announcement of £150m for new kitchen facilities only allocated £847,260. A shortfall of £428,156.

The Council has made representations to the Government asking for a rethink on the funding, but has been told, the Council will need to find the shortfall from its own budget. This is not helpful, as the Council’s budget is already under extreme pressures and could do without having to find a further £428,156.

However, to make sure the Council meets its obligation for September, I have in conjunction with the Director and Head of Service has agreed this shortfall will come out of the school maintenance budget and then make a case to the School’s Forum (independent of the Council and who administers the Dedicated Schools Grant) to use some of the under-spend in the DSG. That way, the school maintenance budget will hopefully (the SF who can say yes or no) be replenished and this money will be able to try to address the £59m maintenance backlog.

It is extremely disappointing this good idea of free school meals has been undermined by not enough funding being awarded. You cannot help but think the provision of school kitchens was an afterthought to the announcement.

Funding for New Kitchen Facilities for Free School Meals

In the Government’s Autumn Statement it announced capital funding would be made available to Local Authorities to help fund new and/or updating school kitchen facilities. This is part of the Governments plan to provide free school meals for under-eights (KS1).

The Government has put aside £150m to help fund the required kitchen facilities. 

I am pleased to say Cornwall has now been given details on its share of that capital funding. This is for the provision of kitchen facilities in LA maintained and Voluntary Aided (VA) schools. There was a worry that funding details had been totally lacking. This was becoming a greater concern as the provision of free school meals was to be in place for September 2014.

Thankfully details have now been released and for Cornwall, its share of the fund totals £847,259. This is split for LA maintained Schools – £757,646 and VA schools – £89,614.

This is excellent news which I welcome this settlement as it is good news for the Council and the provision of free school meals in our schools. Now we can get on with the planning to make sure everything is ready for September.

And this is the second  good news story the Council has received today.