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Councils funding school meals shortfall – LGA

Councils and schools have had to divert funds from their budgets to help deliver the government’s free school meal policy, despite promises it would be fully-funded, a new study has revealed.

Local authorities had been given £150m from central government to fund essential capital work – such as building new kitchens – for schools to provide free meals to all pupils aged seven and under from September.

However, the Local Government Association’s online survey of chief finance officers in the 150 single and upper-tier English councils in LGA membership, revealed that 47% of councils said they had not received enough money from the Department for Education to cover the full cost of the work.

In areas without enough money, 49% said the council would contribute to the shortfall, while 37% said at least some of the shortfall would come from school funds. The LGA estimates councils without enough money have had to find an average of £488,000 each [totalling £25.9m across all the councils that responded] to ensure all pupils will get the meals they will be entitled to.

Cllr David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA's Children and Young People Board, said: “When the youngest pupils go back to school next month, their mums and dads will expect them to receive a free and nutritious meal. Some councils already provided this service, and now that it has become government policy we are determined to ensure every child is provided for.

“There's no doubt that dishing up a nutritious lunch for every young pupil will improve the experience of school and help them concentrate in lessons. But it cannot be right that for some councils, money set aside for maintenance has instead had to be spent plugging the shortfall in money which government should have provided for meals.”

This latest research has raised concerns with a number of teaching unions. Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, stated that this is another example of the “government giving with one hand and taking away with the other”.

He added that it is wrong that local councillors find themselves in the “invidious position” of having to cut other essential services, like school maintenance, to meet the cost of the introduction of free school meals.

Schools will receive money to cover the cost of each meal separately. But it has been revealed that some schools will give pupils packed lunches and others will use portable kitchens to ensure meals are provided from September, while work continues on longer-term options for hot meals.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Providing free school meals will help children do better in school, as well as helping them to eat more healthily while saving hardworking taxpayers up to £400 a year. We are pleased that so many local authorities recognise this, and that they are working with schools to make sure that families and children in their communities benefit from the new policy from this September.

“We have provided significant financial support to schools to help them deliver the policy, including over £1bn over the next two years to pay for the costs of providing the meals. Schools and local authorities have also received additional money to help upgrade facilities and local authorities can decide whether they should top this up from their general maintenance budgets.”

He added that based on evidence collected from councils and schools themselves, the DfE believes that all schools are on track to deliver free school meals in September.

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