Louise Tickle gets the task of monitoring the progress of the ‘free’ school lunch idea
at St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol for the ‘Guardian’:
"I used to have school meals but now I don't because the prices got higher," says five-year-old Jemima, cramming the last bit of KitKat from her packed lunch into her mouth with a happy grin.
School dinners here have just gone up to £2.25, so it's hardly surprising that some parents look at a bill of almost £50 a month and conclude that they can make a packed lunch for less.
Well, quite! With BOGOF offers, who couldn’t
? Whether they’d fall foul of schools healthy eating policies is another matter, of course…
Come September, though, if the universal free school meals policy is realised, Jemima's family won't have to pay.
No indeed! I will! And you. In fact, all those taxpayers who don’t
have children will be paying to feed the little….darlings.
But right now, it's hard to see how headteacher Emma Payne is going to turn Nick Clegg's policy – announced at the Liberal Democrat party conference – into a reality.
Because, as we’ve seen before, there’s a problem with the logistics.
Headteachers received their first letter on the subject from the education secretary, Michael Gove, and the schools minister, David Laws, last month informing them they are obliged to implement the policy by September. So far, there have been no offers of any help or advice about how to get the job done.
Well, isn’t that why they pay them the big bucks? To resolve issues?
Payne starts to explain the problems she's facing, but has barely described the catchment – "very mixed, lots of cultures, some families in one of the 10% most deprived wards in the UK" – when she suddenly has to leap up: a referral to social services needs her urgent input.
The problems are the usual – not enough room to accommodate everyone:
The school has 426 children. The dining hall isn't big. Fifteen folded dining tables are placed against a wall. It's the middle of assembly: one class isn't here, and even with pupils sitting on the floor the room is nearly full.
Can they expand? Well, it’ll be difficult…
We poke our heads into the kitchen. A year ago, the contract catering company asked for what was then a facility for keeping pre-cooked dinners warm to be converted so that meals could be cooked on site. It's small: about six metres by four (20ft by 13ft). A chef and two assistants bustle about. Any more people working in here would be a squash.
There's nowhere inside to extend this kitchen. The only option is to knock through the outside wall. We go outside. Half of the small area that could be built on is taken up by a shed. Curious, I open a door, to find lots of catering equipment, cutlery and serving dishes.
"We were asked to put it up because there was no room for everything in the kitchen," Swift explains.
In fact, it’s worse than you think:
Wondering what scale of increase the kitchen would need to deliver the universal free school meals, we ask the office for a snapshot of the numbers. "Today there are 53 children in reception and key stage 1 having a school dinner," says the administration expert. If universal free meals were in operation today, 173 children at this school would be eligible. In TV chef-speak, that's another 120 "plates" to be prepped, cooked and dished up. Extra supervising staff will be needed too.
"Little ones will need some of their lunch cutting up."
Add to this headache, school funding concerns:
"Actually," she says, "my immediate thought was about pupil premium funding." I'm puzzled, so Payne explains. St Mary Redcliffe has 22% of pupils taking free school meals.
"That's 124 children whose parents have claimed – though I know another 94 children are entitled." Pupil premium money, so vital to schools like this, is calculated per pupil claiming free school meals.
"As yet, I'm unclear about how universal free school meals will impact upon pupil premium funding," she says.
I’d be feeling sorry for them right now, if it weren’t for the fact that they are probably the people that voted Clegg into office:
In an ideal world, with all the practical challenges met, does Payne believe that offering free school meals to all children is a good thing?
"Yes," she says immediately. "It's a nutritious meal, and it's appropriate portion-sizing for children. It's fresh. And it's produced from scratch on the premises."
And it’s not for me (or you) to provide it. It’s for their parents.
So, does she have a plan? "No, I don't know what to do," she admits. "There is no simple solution, and complex solutions take time.
And," she adds dryly, recalling the urgent support required by one child's family earlier this morning, "we're quite busy at the moment, really."
Will she still vote for Clegg? Probably…