Schools struggle to hit free meals targets

First published in News Salisbury Journal: Photograph of the Author by

FIVE schools in south Wiltshire may be unable to comply with government policy to give all infants free hot lunches from September.

Among them are St Thomas a Becket School in Tilshead and the New Forest School in Landford.

The others have not been named publicly, but they do not have kitchens and are in rural areas where the cost of bringing in meals is high.

Wiltshire Council, the education authority, has been working hard to help them, and is spending £100,000 more than the Government has given it for the purpose.

The extra will come from its school repairs and maintenance budget.

St Thomas a Becket School has no catering facilities and cannot afford to have food delivered.

Headteacher Alison Trickey said she would have to spend up to £10,000 on the service.

“Our budget this year has been reduced by about £20,000 because of the new funding formula, so actually I'm spending about £2,000 more than I've got coming in already,” said Mrs Trickey.

"I have made cuts in every single area apart from teaching staff, and we're not prepared to reduce staffing hours to provide free lunches."

New Forest headteacher Paul Lailey said: “I’m fully supportive of free hot meals, but the initiative was rushed through and there wasn’t enough expertise offered at the beginning to local authorities or to schools.

“We are a split site school. We don’t even have space for a dishwasher.

“But we are not quite small enough to qualify for additional funding.”

A consultant has now been provided to assess the problem, and the school hopes to use Hampshire Council’s catering service, HC3S.

“But we would only have meals brought in from a ‘hub’ at Alderbury and the washing-up taken away,” said Mr Lailey.

“We are worried that we may make an ongoing loss if we don’t have a high take-up. Parents can still choose to send in sandwiches.

“And some families don’t want hot meals for one child if they can’t have them for their older children, too.

“It has been a very difficult time.”

The government has allocated £2.30 per child for the meals.

A spokesman for Wiltshire Council said: “We have identified ‘hub’ kitchens in some schools that can help others.

“In other cases, a commercial provider has been happy to scale up production and provide transport.

“But in our small, very rural schools there are no economies of scale, and the cost of putting a meal in front of a child is more than £2.30.

“We think these are solvable problems but we just need a bit more time.”

The Children's Food Trust has been commissioned by the Government to help make the scheme work. A spokesman said an adviser would be visiting St Thomas a Becket.

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