London schools could face having to plug a £39 million shortfall in funding after Sadiq Khan pledged to extend free school meals to all primary pupils in the capital next year, analysis suggests.
The Mayor of London’s £130 million announcement has been lauded as “life-changing”. Khan said it would save families “hundreds of pounds” when universal eligibility is extended to pupils in years 3 to 6 from September.
But the amount of funding for the scheme, which is only guaranteed for one year and does not extend to secondary schools, has been criticised.
City Hall said 270,000 more children would benefit – working out at around £2.54 per meal – with money coming from “additional business rates income” – itself a one-off windfall.
Last year, the National Education Union estimated the true cost to a school of providing a hot meal for a primary pupil, once rising costs are factored-in, was £3.30.
If the 77p shortfall was extrapolated out across all the children the policy is expected to help, this would leave London schools facing a shortfall of over £39 million.
City Hall told Schools Week it would work “closely” with schools to “ensure” they are not left out of pocket, but has not said how it would do so, or if further money would be made available.
Schools will ‘end up subsidising’ from budgets
School food campaigner Andy Jolley said schools would “end up subsidising from teaching budgets”, also pointing out there was no additional funding for catering infrastructure.
Schools Week analysis suggests schools are already making up funding shortfalls as the amounts they receive from central government for free school meals have not risen in line with soaring costs.
Funding for universal infant free school meals is £2.41 per meal this year, 89p below the NEU estimate of actual costs. Extrapolated across the capital’s primaries, this leads to a shortfall of almost £43 million.
Schools receive around £2.47 per meal for means-tested free school meals. Again, this is a shortfall of around 83p, a shortfall of almost £27 million when applied to all of the primary pupils currently eligible.
The NEU reached the £3.30 figure by taking the cost of providing means in 2010, and estimating how much it would be today after factoring in rising costs of staffing and food.
Jolley also said Khan’s scheme “ignores hungry secondary pupils”, and suggested universal free meals should be targeted by area, not by school phase.
He pointed to variations in free school meals eligibility between different London boroughs. In Richmond and Kingston, around 12 per cent of pupils are eligible, whereas eligibility is around 40 per cent in Islington and Camden.
“If you’re going to spend £130 million to fight poverty, then focus on those in greatest need, not pseudo-universality that ignores teenagers
“Be in no doubt, unless there’s more money, this will harm schools.”
A spokesperson for Khan said the mayor had “repeatedly called on the government to provide universal free school meals and hopes that the example set in London next academic year will prove the benefit of this scheme beyond any doubt”.
Primaries could lose £5m pupil premium cash
Pupil premium funding could also be impacted.
Impetus, a youth education and employment charity, pointed to FFT Education Datalab analysis, which in 2018 found that the introduction of universal infant free school meals led to a 1 per cent decline in the proportion of pupils eligible for the pupil premium.
The extra funding is paid on the basis of means-tested free school meals eligibility. Impetus said today’s announcement could mean London primary schools lose out on over £5 million if the pledge had a similar effect.
Steve Haines, Impetus’s director of public affairs, said “no child should be too hungry to learn, and we welcome efforts to tackle this”.
“But we are concerned that the unintended consequence of this important intervention could end up disadvantaging the children who need it the most.”
Again, City Hall said it would work with schools to “ensure” they did not “miss out” on the pupil premium, but did not say how this would be achieved.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said Khan’s announcement was “a much-needed lifeline for families experiencing hardship following a decade of economic mismanagement from the government”.
“Poverty has a profound impact on students’ attainment and educational outcomes, and the cost-of-living crisis is leading to a devastating fall in living standards for millions, forcing more families into poverty and hardship.”
‘Free school meals are a lifeline’ says Khan
Steve Chalke, the founder of Oasis Community Learning, said it was a “brilliant, life-changing, future-shaping, health-creating decision”, and called for the approach to become national policy.
The shadow health secretary Wes Streeting called the initiative a “welcome opportunity to research the impact of free school meals on childhood health and nutrition and educational attainment”.
Khan said he knew “from personal experience that free school meals are a lifeline”.
“My siblings and I depended on them to eat while at school and my parents relied on them to give our family a little extra breathing room financially.
“The difference they can make to children who are at risk of going hungry – and to families who are struggling to make ends meet – is truly game-changing.”