Havering schools being charged for free pupil meals

Primary and secondary schools were charged £1.40 or £1.60 per meal respectively, with the amount bas

Primary and secondary schools were charged £1.40 or £1.60 per meal respectively, with the amount based on how many free meals were given at each school last year. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Havering schools are being charged for Free School Meals from last term.

At the Schools Funding Forum on Tuesday, November 3, one headteacher said the invoice for the meals was “dropped on (them) less than a day before the summer holidays”.

Havering Council’s principal finance officer for schools Nick Carter said the charge issued by the borough’s School Catering Service, an in-house provider, “had to be made”.

A report for the forum said the council deemed the service “at risk” because of lost income and only being able to furlough around half its staff, falling to 42 staff when schools reopened.

Primary and secondary schools were charged £1.40 or £1.60 per meal respectively, with the amount based on how many meals were given at each school last year.

This is compared to the £2.30 and £2.60 cost per meal usually paid by the government, although Mr Carter refused to share how it was reduced, arguing it was commercially sensitive information.

On Friday, November 6, council leader Cllr Damian White said: “It’s important to say that this has nothing to do with the Free School Meals offered during the October half-term. This was paid for fully by the council, with no costs passed on to schools or parents, to ensure that our most vulnerable children continued to get nutritious and healthy meals throughout the holiday period.

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“Havering Schools Catering Service, which supports 62 schools in the borough, is fully council-run and not a private company [as was stated in a previous version of this article]. The service is completely funded through the income it generates and continues to operate as a viable operation despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Due to the significant impact of the pandemic on many private and public sector schools catering service providers, including ourselves, it was necessary to take these steps to reduce the financial impact in order to maintain this vital service for our schools.

“Unlike many private sector companies providing school meals services who continued to charge schools the full price during this period, we opted to provide reduced priced school meals as the government’s policy allowed.

“During the lock down period and summer term, schools in the borough overwhelmingly acknowledged the responsiveness of the council’s School Meals Service in the way it adapted to the challenges they faced and how it provided effective support. Furthermore, as a gesture of goodwill, the service provided all staff meals and meals for keyworker children ‘free of charge’ during this period.

“The School Meals Service continues to provide nutritious and tasty school meals to children and young people in the borough.”

A survey of all the borough’s schools, to which around half responded, revealed some have lost more than £100,000 because of the impact of coronavirus so far.

Lost income and staffing costs were the two biggest budget hits for schools but are not currently covered by the Department of Education’s Covid support funding.

Suttons Primary School headteacher David Unwin-Bailey told the forum he received the charge the day before the holidays with “no justification” and “broad and ambiguous” language.

He said: “In some schools, the heads made a decision, because the numbers were so low, that all children attending had to provide their own packed lunch so they could release kitchen staff.”

The report notes that, while the company made some savings due to having to buy less food, the food packs it issued to children at home “were more expensive… than the usual meals”.

Mr Unwin-Bailey questioned this extra cost being passed on to schools, arguing the School Catering Service “control that” and “are running a business”.

It was agreed that council officers would meet in private with schools that use the company, which is the majority of those in the borough, to discuss the matter further.

The council’s assistant director of education, Trevor Cook, was also able to share some good news with the forum, which is that schools may begin to receive free PPE.

He said the council is currently negotiating with the pan-London alliance for PPE, set up in May, to have “educational settings included in free provision”.

The schools that responded to the survey spent an average of almost £5,000 each on PPE, with four schools reporting spending more than £10,000.

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