Schools must pay up for free meals

Goddard Park headteacher Mike Welsh having lunch with pupils

Goddard Park headteacher Mike Welsh having lunch with pupils

First published in News Swindon Advertiser: Photograph of the Author by , @Michael_Benke

SOMEschools in Swindon will have to fork out for kitchen upgrades ahead of compulsory meals coming into effect in September.

Last year the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that all children in Years 1 and 2 would get a free meal, which has meant many schools have needed to upgrade their facilities.

The council received a grant earlier this year for £360,000 but this will not be able to cover the full cost so schools have been asked to contribute.

Initially, it was believed schools would need to pay 20 per cent from their own funds but this has since dropped closer to five per cent.

However, the move has been criticised by headteachers who say while they welcome school meals for youngsters, they feel the move has been ill thought out and pupils will suffer as a result.

Mike Welsh, headteacher at Goddard Park Primary, said: “This is a good policy and the idea of all the youngsters having a hot meal is a good thing.

“The problem is that it has not been thought out or financed properly. If you are going to implement a policy like this then you need to make sure it is done correctly.

“We have everything in place so it will not be an issue here but I have spoken to a number of headteachers elsewhere who say they will have to spend money.

“As with everywhere money is tight so this could have a negative effect on education which is unacceptable.

“I am not blaming the local authority because they can only work with what they are given. It feels as though this policy has been rushed through and as a result schools are having to pay the price.”

A council spokesman said: “In Swindon, schools are making no more than five per cent contribution towards the costs, using a process that has been worked out with them. “We had originally estimated that it might be up to 20 per cent, but following discussions about their requirements it turned out to be much less. This means that we have received 95 per cent of the money required from government funding.”

Council leaders have defended the policy which they say will make a big difference to many lives.

Coun Fionuala Foley (Con, Chiseldon and Lawn), the cabinet member for schools, said: “I understand that five per cent from the budget at any time is not ideal but I feel it will be a good investment.

“The benefits from ensuring every child in Years 1 and 2 get hot meals will outweigh the costs. It will improve concentration and possibly attendance.

“Council officers and catering managers have worked hard to make sure the cost is kept down.

“For many children this will be their only hot meal of the day.”

The opposition have said the policy is focused in the wrong place and while the free meals are a good thing, it is a luxury in a time of austerity.

Anne Snelgrove, the Labour parliamentary candidate for Swindon South, said: “I am extremely disappointed schools in Swindon are going to have to dedicate 20 per cent of their budget to pay for free school meals at a time when class sizes are going up.

“My priority would not have been to introduce free school meals at this time because, while nice, the school budgets are stretched and there are other priorities.”

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