Plans to scrap free hot meals for infants could hit Thanet’s ‘low-paid families and cost jobs’ says head teacher

Free school meals

A Conservative Party proposal to scrap  the policy of free school lunches for every infant child and replace them with a free breakfast for all primary pupils could have a devastating effect on low-earning families and some school staff, says a Ramsgate head teacher.

The manifesto pledge is aimed at saving some £650million, which is earmarked to go back into the education budget.

The manifesto states: “There is now good evidence that school breakfasts are at least as effective in helping children to make progress in school. So, under a new Conservative government, schools in England will offer a free school breakfast to every child in every year of primary school, while children from low-income families will continue to receive free school lunches throughout their years in primary and secondary education.

“The savings made from this change will be added to the core schools budget, meaning that every penny saved will go towards children’s education.”

Free school lunches will still be available but will be means-tested so they are provided for families in receipt of benefits such as Income Support and JSA. Find out if your child is entitled to the meals here

Coalition policy

The pledge comes less than three years after the Coalition Government brought in the free lunches for all infants – a move that involved the government spending £150m to improve kitchens and dining facilities so schools could implement the policy.

The Department for Education pays a flat rate of £2.30 for each meal. It is thought breakfasts – which do not have to be hot – could cost a tenth of that price.

The picture at one Thanet primary

At one isle primary every single child receives a free lunch.

The head teacher, who has asked not to be named, says the free meals are “of such importance to the welfare and learning potential of all children,” and provide work for an additional five kitchen staff.

He says scrapping the lunches could mean job losses as well as hitting children from families who are just above the benefits threshold and so do not qualify for statutory free meals.

He said: “We are acutely aware of the number of hard working families who are just above the benefits threshold, who would not have £12 per week to pay for a hot meal.

“All research, and our own evidence, is that a hot meal for children from the ages of 4-11 makes a huge difference in the ability and desire for the children to learn, meaning that they make accelerated progress when in the classroom.

“Aside from that, we teach the children the necessary social skills involved in eating a formal dinner in our ‘restaurant’, we prepare them for everyday life as socially responsible young people.

“As far as the logistics of providing 550 hot meals every day, we employed five additional kitchen staff and had at least £30,000 worth of work done in order to ready the kitchens for the policy brought in by the Coalition Government.

“If this new policy proposal goes ahead we will be looking at making redundancies, having costly equipment made redundant, and the very children who need it would be denied a hot meal every day, therefore impacting on their ability to learn.”

The figures

According to data published by Kent County Council there were 1,262 infant pupils on the roll for Thanet in January 2017.

The data says 18.8% of isle primary pupils are entitled to free school lunches. This equates to around 237  children in Reception to Year 2.

This means free lunches would be axed for more than 1,000 four to seven-year-olds on the isle but all 11,459 primary pupils at the isle’s 31 primary schools would receive a free breakfast.

The cost to families above the benefit line would be some £440 per year for each of their children to have a hot lunch – something the head teacher we spoke to says many low-paid, working parents will not be able to afford.

Early opening?

The logistics of providing breakfast for every pupil could also be problematic, said the head teacher.

He said: “The reality of a breakfast, which doesn’t have to be hot, is that we would need to open the school at least an hour earlier. We do this already for 100 children, but managing it for more than 500 would not be conducive to a calm and settled start to the day and the nature of the meal would not necessarily have the impact that a hot meal does at lunchtime.”

Two meals

The Conservative Party says the changes are necessary, stating: “The most disadvantaged children will now get two free school meals a day rather than one. 

“We will make sure all those who need it most still get free lunches – and will offer a free school breakfast to every child in every year of primary school. So, the most disadvantaged children will now get two free school meals a day rather than one.”