Free school meals – some key questions

Who should receive a free school meal?
From the current term onwards, all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 in state-funded schools in England are eligible for free school meals. This includes infant pupils in maintained infant and primary schools, free schools, academies, schools for pupils with special educational needs and pupil referral units. Pupils at maintained nursery schools, direct grant nursery schools, independent schools and general hospital schools are not included.
Free meals are also now extended to disadvantaged students in further education and sixth-form colleges to mirror entitlement in school sixth forms.

Why have free school meals for all infant pupils been introduced?
The government is funding schools in England to provide every child in reception, year 1 and year 2 with a nutritious meal at lunch time. The aim is to improve academic attainment and save families money.
Universal free school meals for primary school pupils were a key recommendation in the School Food Plan, which was produced independently for the Department for Education. The School Food Plan presented evidence that universal free school meals leads to positive improvements in health, attainment and social cohesion, and help families with the cost of living.

How much money are schools receiving to roll this out?
Schools are allocated a flat rate of £2.30 per meal taken, based on actual take-up by newly eligible infant pupils, which will be measured in the Schools Census from next year.
For infant pupils who were already registered to claim free school meals, schools will receive whatever your current rate is. The £2.30 flat rate is to pay for the meals of pupils who were not already registered for free school meals.

DfE recognise some smaller schools will face particular challenges. Transitional funding totaling £22.5 million has been made available in 2014-15 to small schools.
There is also £150 million available for capital funding to help schools purchase kitchen and dining equipment. David Laws, the Schools Minister, has written to Local Authority Directors of Children’s Services with details of how this money should be allocated.
Local Authorities have been asked to prioritise capital expenditure according to their local circumstances and have been encouraged to consider how this funding could be used to improve school kitchen and dining facilities, and to support creative approaches to meeting the increase in demand for school food.
Many Local Authorities have worked with schools, either through their catering teams, or direct to schools that have in-house or other private catering arrangements. Academy trusts have also received capital funding through the Academies Capital Maintenance Fund.

How is the Pupil Premium calculated when all infants are receiving a free meal?
As of this school year, there are two types of pupils receiving free meals. All infants automatically receive free school meals but there are also pupils (including infants) who are eligible for free school meals because their parents receive certain benefits. The parents/carers of disadvantaged pupils should still be encouraged to sign up for free school meals and complete the paperwork to ensure that the school receives Pupil Premium funding.
Pupil Premium allocations continue to be calculated using data collected during the January census of schools and pupils. The amount a school receives in the financial year 2014 to 2015 depends on how many eligible pupils are registered for free school meals on the day of the school census. It is not affected by the introduction of free school meals for all infant school children. Schools must continue to encourage parents of eligible children to register their child for free school meals to ensure your school receives the maximum pupil premium allocation for that year.
For the financial year 2015 to 2016, the same criteria currently used to assess FSM eligibility (i.e. receipt of qualifying benefits) will continue to be used to assess whether a pupil qualifies for the pupil premium (£1,300 per child at present). Data on FSM-eligible pupils will continue to be collected by the department annually, through the School Census (for mainstream settings) and the Alternative Provision census (for non-mainstream settings).

Do schools have to provide free school meals for all infants?
Yes. This is now a legal requirement following royal assent to an amendment to the Children and Families Bill to place a legal duty on primary schools to offer free meals to all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2 from this September. The legislation also includes a power to extend the policy to additional year groups in future. Existing entitlements to free school meals for disadvantaged pupils in nursery classes and at key stages 2-4 will continue as now.

How do schools know how many meals they need to provide?
The simplest thing to do is ask parents of Reception and Year 1 pupils if they plan to switch to school meals from September (when they will become Year 1 and 2 pupils). This can be done by using a simple form with a tick box to indicate interest. This will help to understand if school meal numbers will increase and help you to plan. The same can be done when parents of new Reception pupils come to school for information evenings.

Do schools need more staff on hand?
For catering staff, a good estimate is that each cook can produce around ten meals per hour, but schools are advised to talk to their school cook or catering provider and ask them how many staff they will need, once they havefound out how many parents plan to take up the offer of free school meals for infants. Schools can also use this to work out the number of lunchtime supervisors and support staff such as teachers that will be needed to cover meal times.

How can schools manage the increased number of children eating school meals?
Schools need to consider if there are ways they can make more space – can change the layout of tables and chairs to make things flow better? Will lunchtime need to be longer? Will they need to think about staggering lunchtimes for different year groups?
Also, reducing menu size can really help when you’re serving lots of children.

Will children still be able to bring in a packed lunch if they wish to?
Head teachers have the power to decide whether they want to allow pupils to bring in a packed lunch instead of taking up their free school meal. We would recommend introducing a healthy packed lunch policy for those who do continue to do so and for older pupils who choose to bring in a packed lunch.

Is there funding available to help schools build the facilities needed?
The Department for Education has made £150 million capital funding available to support the universal infant free school meals entitlement in the 2014 to 2015 financial year. Schools can find out how much funding is available in their area on the Department’s website, and can also contact their local authority to find out how to apply for this funding.

If schools don’t have a kitchen or have inadequate kitchen facilities, what can they do?
There are several options open to schools including: applying for capital funding; siting a ‘pod’ (mobile kitchen) on site if there is space; bringing in food from a hub kitchen; or as a last resort bringing cold food items that meet the standards for school food.

How are allergies and special dietary requirements catered for?
School lunch menus are designed for the majority of the school population, so some pupils with special dietary needs may need to be catered for individually. It is up to the school to decide whether this is feasible, although every effort should be made to cater for all pupils’ needs.
Schools are not required by law to cater for children with special dietary needs but they are encouraged to do so.
We would recommend that schools develop a policy and procedure to ensure that a request for a special diet is handled in an efficient and appropriate way. It is good practice for these requirements to be written into any contracts that are developed with caterers. Catering providers and local authorities may already have policies and procedures in place.

Is the free school meal required to be a hot meal?
The legal requirement on schools is to provide a lunchtime meal that meets the school food standards, where they apply. It is important that all meals meet these standards and a cold meal is very unlikely to do. It is expected that pupils will routinely be offered a hot meal option.
The standards apply to all LA maintained schools. Academies set up between 2008 and 2010 are required to comply with the existing regulations. Academies and free schools set up after 2010 are currently exempt. The government will be introducing a requirement for new academies to comply with the school food standards regulations through their funding agreements.
As part of the work to implement the School Food Plan, schools that do not have to comply with the regulations are being asked to make a voluntary commitment to do so.

Why has a meal price of £2.30 been chosen?
The Children’s Food Trust’s most recent survey estimate of £2.30 for a primary school meal has been used. This is the best available data, but we know that actual costs vary and in some cases schools will be able to deliver extra meals for less than this.

Can you assume economies of scale?
The evaluation of the free school meals pilots in Durham and Newham suggested that economies of scale may be generated by an increase in take up, and found that caterers’ prices in the pilot areas did not increase over the course of the pilot while they did elsewhere. The authors of the independent School Food Plan – Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent – estimate that there will be economies of scale as take up in a school increases. They cite evidence from the Association for Public Service Excellence that there is great variation in productivity in school catering, with gaps in meal production per staff hour that could be closed if take-up increases.

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