Nick Clegg’s free school meals: a policy served cold

As primary school students are looking forward to their summer holidays, many head teachers across the country are fretting about the implementation of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s flagship universal free school meals (UIFSM) programme, due to commence in September 2014.

The UIFSM programme, announced just ten months ago in September 2013, seeks to provide all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 in state-funded schools with a free hot school lunch. Although reasonably well-intentioned, there are increasing fears that a combination of poor funding and poor planning may undermine what the scheme is trying to achieve.

Despite £1bn worth of funding being set aside between 2014 and 2015, and an additional £150m worth of funding during the same period, first-hand accounts provided by head teachers to the Guardian have revealed the extent of the problem. It discovered that some were having to divert resources and funds from their school’s budget to pay for new kitchens as a result of underfunding. One head teacher at a primary school in Bristol claimed that, as late as May, she was still looking for £65,000 to fund the extension of their school kitchen. Another primary school in Dorset claimed that even though they had the facilities available to produce hot meals, they did not have the finances to employ the staff to serve them.

Rather than being isolated cases, these anxieties are being felt across the country. A study by Lincolnshire local authority forecast gaps in some districts as high as 2,800 between pupil numbers and meal production. A later study by The Key – a head teachers’ advice service – found that two thirds of primary schools were not fully prepared for the programme, and one in eight schools were struggling to prepare.

The scheme itself has also proven politically divisive. Leaked emails suggested coalition tensions over funding, with Gove’s former special adviser, Dominic Cummings, criticising the idea as “dumb” and a “bad gimmick”. Nevertheless, despite strong accusations of a rift between Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister David Laws, the two Ministers have shown public unity by producing a joint letter in the Times stating the programme’s cross-party support.

A failure to have the scheme running by the September deadline as envisioned by Clegg would no doubt be harmful for his reputation, and add to the stockpile of ammunition that his political allies are able to use against him. It remains to be seen, however, whether schools will find some way to comply and spare his blushes.

Ben Chiu