The weekend announcement
Brent Schools Forum this week was over-shadowed by budget concerns. Schools have been hit by high energy costs, inflation, falling pupil numbers, delays in awarding funding for EHCPs (Education Health and Care Plans for pupils with special needs) which means that schools fund extra support from their own budgets. There is now the prospect that any staff salary increases will have to be funded from the individual school budgets rather than be fully funded by the government.
A significant number of Brent schools will have an in-year deficit in 2023-24, relying on the use of their reserves or a contribution from the Council via the Direct Schools Grant.
Against this background, although the Mayor's one year (and one-off) provision of universal free school meals was welcomed by Forum members, they also noted that there were issues around implementation.
Officers are still trying to ascertain details from City Hall but if the GLA financial contribution is just for meal ingredients, and perhaps energy costs, there are other costs involved.
One headteacher pointed out that in his school, if those children currently bringing in packed lunches, switched to hot meals, it would double the number having school meals. This would mean investing in the kitchen capacity (equipment and staffing) but as a 'windfall' provision, without further funding in the future, this expansion would end after a year. In his school there would be double the number of pupils for whom food would have to be prepared, served, supervised and cleared.
The impatct will vary between schools depending on how many children bring in a packed lunch at present.
Getting the expanded provision up and running by September 2023 would be a further challenge, especially if kitchen infrastructure work was needed, given current rising building costs and unreliable supply chains.
At a practical level the switch from children sitting down to their own packed lunches, basically serving themselves, and instead joining the lunchtime queue at the servery would present logistical problems that would extend the lunch break and require additional supervision.
An unintended consequence might be that because at present parents of junior aged children have to register for free school meals, and this is used as a base for pupil premium funds, universality would mean parents would no longer bother to register - reducing the amount of pupil premium allocated to the school.
Gwen Grahl, Cabinet member for Children, Young People and Schools, responding to the discussion said:
There are definitely legitimate concerns about how this will be implemented. We have recognised for a while now that there is a need for better measures to tackle food poverty. We hear that, not only from teachers, but also from foodbanks that we visit. It (universal free primary school meals) is a positive measure in that regard and we think that the amount of money (£170m) is something we want to use, but we have been in touch with City Hall and have raised some of the concerns.
We have made it clear that there wil be challenges with implementation. We want to have the confidence that we can implement by September and we would need support from City Hall in doing so. We would also need the confidence that the projected amount it will cost is accurate as I think that City Hall has done its own research and what they think it will cost in every borough. I think the amount is £2.71 per meal, so it is going to be a stretch. We also raised the issue of whether it would affect the pupil premium.
I am sure you will appreciate none of the details have come out yet. We want to reassure you that we have raised raised these issues with City Hall and we are looking for a lot of detail and support from them in implementation.
We will be able to disucss this with headteachers as soon as broader details have been refined for Brent.