Free School Meals: under-funded and under-planned?

20 May 2014

In March, Dominic Cummings, former Special Adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove, claimed that the government's universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) policy was under-planned and under-funded — claims which were dismissed by ministers as "complete and utter balls".

As we wrote last week, we submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Department for Education to get to the bottom of the dispute.

We've now had a response, albeit over a month past the 20 day limit on FoIs. The Department told us it had been involved in discussions about the possibility of the policy being introduced "for some time prior" to the announcement, and that the funding was calculated on the basis of predictions of the number of eligible pupils and schools, the take up of the meals and previous spending on school kitchen renovations. It said the funding was based on wider resources available to the Department, not underspending from other capital programmes.

Department involved in discussions 'for some time' before the announcement

Mr Cummings claimed that the Department for Education had opposed the UIFSM policy and were only told an hour or so beforehand that it was going to be announced - before when, he said, no policy work had been undertaken.

We asked the Department for the date and time that civil servants were told that the UIFSM was being announced and in what form the notification took place and it told us it didn't hold this information.

It did say that Department officials were involved in discussions about the possibility of introducing UIFSM "for some time prior" to the announcement of the policy at the Lib Dems conference. It also said it had been informed of the intention to announce the policy in advance of the Deputy Prime Minister's speech on 17th September.

A 'back of the fag packet' calculation? 

Mr Cummings also said that the £150m budget for capital spending on kitchens and dining rooms was "a back of the fag packet number by Clegg's spin doctors" and was based on a supposed Department for Education underspend that didn't exist.

We asked the Department how the £150m budget was calculated, and it told us it was based upon:

It also said that it had assessed the need for capital funding in consultation with a number of local authorities, information from which was used in conjunction with the sources above to provide a national projection of how much capital investment was needed. It said it couldn't tell us any detail about these discussions with the local authorities because it relates to the formulation or development of government policy.

In response to our question on whether the £150m spending was calculated on any assumed underspends, it said: "The costs of UFSM are being met from wider resources available to the Department. No other capital programmes have been cut to pay for UIFSM kitchens". We don't know from this if other, non-capital spending initiatives will be cut.

The funding that has been allocated is £419m in 2014-15 and £590m in 2015-16 to fund the ongoing costs of the policy - which includes £22.5m of one-off funding to help schools with up to 150 pupils meet the transitional costs of introducing the policy. It has also allocated the £150m of capital funding in 2014-15 to improve kitchen and dining facilities in schools.

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