Free School Meals: Finance

Department for Education written question – answered on 1st June 2022.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if his Department will make an assessment of the potential merits of ring-fencing the Universal Free School Meals allowance for catering use only.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what assessment his Department has made of the potential challenges facing the food supply industry in respect of the supply of free school meals; and whether he plans to take steps to re-evaluate funding allocated by his Department to those meals.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if he will ask schools to (a) keep a record of the average meals service and (b) submit a return to his Department each school term to help reduce the cost of the Universal Free School Meals overall.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what assessment his Department has made of the implications for his policies of recent reports that school meal suppliers are reducing portion sizes or reducing quality of ingredients to continue to supply Universal Free School Meals with the current funding.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if his Department will increase the allowance for Universal Free School Meals in line with rising inflation.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what assessment his Department has made of the impact of the Government's 1.7 per cent increase in funding for Universal Free School Meals on suppliers of those meals who are facing a 9 per cent increase in food prices.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The provision of free school meals (FSM) to children who are eligible for them is of the utmost importance to this government. We recognise the cost pressures that some schools and suppliers may be facing, and as usual are holding regular meetings with other government departments and with food industry representatives, covering a variety of issues including public sector food supplies.

The department spends around £600 million per year ensuring around 1.3 million infants enjoy a free, healthy and nutritious meal at lunchtime following the introduction of the universal infant free school meal (UIFSM) policy in 2014. The per meal rate was increased to £2.34 per child in the 2020/21 financial year. The funding rate for the 2022/23 financial year will be published with the funding allocations in June.

Under the benefits-related criteria, the department provides a free healthy meal to around 1.7 million children, ensuring they are well-nourished and can concentrate, learn and achieve in the classroom. Schools fund benefit-related FSM from their core funding which they receive through the schools block of the dedicated schools grant (DSG) and is derived from the national funding formula (NFF). For the 2022/23 financial year, the funding schools attract through the ‘FSM factor’ in the NFF is increasing to £470 per eligible pupil.

In recognition of cost pressures, after the NFF rates were set, the department received additional funding from HM Treasury for core schools funding in the 2022/23 financial year, which we distributed through a schools supplementary grant. As a result of this additional funding, core schools funding for mainstream schools is increasing by £2.5 billion in the 2022/23 financial year, compared to last year. We have also given schools the autonomy to agree individual contracts with school food suppliers and caterers, using their increased core funding.

UIFSM is funded via a direct grant to schools. The allocations are calculated using data recorded in the termly school census. This includes the number of meals taken on the census day, as well as the number of FSM-eligible children. We are mindful of the reporting burden on schools and feel that recording school meals taken through the school census is a proportionate and appropriate method of recording this data, whilst having controls in place to provide assurance that the data is accurate and reliable for funding purposes.

Head teachers and senior leaders are best placed to determine the use of their school’s budget, including how much to spend on school food provision. Subject to meeting their statutory duty to provide a free meal that meets the school food standards to all infants who are not otherwise eligible for benefits-related FSM children, schools may spend the grant for the purposes of the school or for a charitable purpose for the benefit of the pupils. This is set out in the conditions of grant: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/universal-infant-free-school-meals-uifsm-2021-to-2022/universal-infant-free-school-meals-uifsm-conditions-of-grant-2021-to-2022.

Compliance with the school food standards is mandatory for all maintained schools including academies and free schools. It is for schools and caterers to decide what is an appropriate portion and to balance the food served across the school week. The guidance to accompany the school food standards includes guidance on portion sizes and food groups and is available on GOV.UK at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-food-standards-resources-for-schools.

If a parent or guardian is concerned about the quality of school lunches, they should in the first instance contact the headteacher or consider using the school’s complaints policy.

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