One Southampton school is providing free school meals for all children from families receiving universal credit. Headteacher John Draper tells us about the difficulties they face and how they’re trying to overcome them.
I named this initiative ‘Operation Moonshot’; partly as a nod to the old saying ‘Shoot for the Moon - even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars.’ And partly out of frustration at the realization that, in 2022, we once again have the wealth, technology and will to take people to the Moon but somehow can’t ensure that the children are adequately nourished in the sixth richest country in the World.
If I had my way, we’d have free school meals for all children. I sometimes wonder how much increasingly precious admin time this would save in our school office (current estimate, about 25%). On a more human level, it would also be better for staff morale not to have to phone desperate parents who are having to decide whether to pay us the dinner money arrears, or the gas bill (SPOILER: it’s the gas bill, on the understandable logic that the supplier might cut them off, but we won’t refuse to feed a child). I suspect that not having these conversations would also be better for parents' morale too.
I worked out what the cost of doing this would be for our school. The answer is around £50,000 per year. And we’re a small school, with relatively high free school meal eligibility. Without radical changes to the quality of education we offer (and not in a good way), that’s nowhere near possible. It’s a sad fact which is hard to come to terms with.
So, what’s the next best thing? Well, as the office staff inform me - there are many families who are on universal credit (or equivalent) who, incredibly, are not eligible for free school meals. Why? Well, it turns out that since April 2018, their total household income must be less than £7,400 per year. I quickly try to divide £7,400 by 52, fail, but conclude that the answer is depressingly low, and not one that I would relish attempting to budget for a family of four.
I set about finding the scale of the challenge of providing meals to all families receiving universal credit (UC). On the plus side, the infants are already eligible for Universal Infant Free School Meals, and around 35% of our junior children are eligible for FSM already. On the down side, no one can tell me how many families are on UC but not eligible for FSM. Lots of people can tell me how many children eligible for FSM passed the Year 1 Phonics Test, but not this.
My long-suffering Office team design a Google Form, get an email and Facebook post out, and have an answer for me 24 hours later. The answer: about fifteen. (Actually, the number see-saws because some families who are already eligible mistakenly fill in the form, partly because they’re terrified of this lifeline being cut, and we chase other families who we are sure must be on universal credit, and it balances out.) Still, fifteen.
That feels achievable and yet, when you work it out, that’s still around £40 per day. £200 a week. £8000 a year. That’s a lot when your predicted budget outturn is only £1200. And, however worthy the cause, it somehow doesn’t feel right to spend money meant for all the children on one small group like this.
Swaythling Primary School, Southampton, staff: Anna, Ann, Emma, John
And then, just the germ of an idea! Until the summer, we ran after school provision. The staff who ran it left, and some of our families who really need it are accessing a commercial offer at a neighbouring school. It’s nearly double the cost, and unreliable - several times cancelled at short notice. It occurs to me that if we could get ours up and running again, there’s a potential win-win: affordable childcare for some of our working families who need after school care, and a small profit from that, which could pay the cost of the additional school meals. So, the Office team roll their collective sleeves up, and calculate that yes, it could be done if we charged slightly more than we used to, but considerably less than the commercial offer over the road. Bringing it back in house also means that we could resume offering a couple of places free to vulnerable families who just need a bit of a break. Surely we’re on to something here.
And then it happens. The miracle of Swaythling. An angel in human form. Straight out of “It’s A Wonderful Life”, just as I’m putting the phone down to our Caterers, enquiring about potential for the extra meals, my Business Manager brings round a kind, white haired man. His late wife had attended the school, and he’s seen stories on the news about hungry school children and wants to make a difference. He says he has two pensions - way more than he needs. He then gives us an envelope with a sizeable donation. He’s in tears, and has some very harsh words about Mr Putin I won’t repeat. I shake his hand. My business manager is in tears. I offer to show him round the school, but he’s desperate to remain anonymous and wants to get away quickly. It dawns on me that the envelope contains enough money to provide the universal credit meals for a good few months, and whilst I’m not a religious man, I take it as a sign from the Universe or something that I should just take the leap of faith and get started. So we do. We’re now in week two, and serving up around a dozen extra meals a day.
That doesn’t sound like much in the grand scheme of things but for those families it’s putting an extra £13 per child per week in their pockets. No doubt that’s nowhere near enough to cope with soaring rent, energy and food costs. But it’s something, and it gives a bit of dignity.
All the staff are proud of what we hope to do through this tough winter, and so we agreed to scrap ‘Secret Santa’, instead putting the money we would have spent into Operation Moonshot. In our newsletter, I tell parents that it’s really not necessary to buy us gifts and cards for Christmas; what we appreciate more than anything is a homemade card. We’ve made a trip to the scrapstore, and have some cardmaking materials in the foyer we give away to any children who want to do so. We also add a ‘Donate’ option on our school payments webpage alongside the School Dinners and Uniform options if any families do want to chip in to Moonshot as well.
A couple of days later, coincidentally, the tax system, charity status of private schools and funding of Southampton’s state schools comes up at PMQ’s. Not for the first time, I reflected on the fact that if we were a private school raising money for, say, a new stable block, parents would be able to tick a ‘Gift Aid’ box when they donate. But state schools can’t be charities. There’s no boost from the tax-payer when our parents donate money to feed hungry children.
I’m proud of what we are setting out to do as a community. Over the winter, when things are so much tougher, at least we are doing our best. We can then review the sustainability and keep our fingers crossed that we manage to recruit to the extended school posts…
This has taken a huge amount of time and energy. But even so, we’re in a lucky position. We’re a small school, so we’re not talking about huge numbers, and we have a very diverse demographic: some slightly wealthier middle-class families, as well as some in real and urgent need. Using the income from the after school club to pay for the subsidized meals is essentially a subtle form of wealth redistribution. Like much else in our country, schools tend to be more polarized generally - this wouldn’t work if your families didn’t have this mix.
It also occurs to me that this is a bigger agenda than serving fifteen additional meals per day. We also need to think about cooking clubs and support with budgeting, but there’s only so much time and I’ll think about those in the New Year.
If you’ve read this far, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’m now in favour of universal free school meals for the following reasons:
The means testing is time consuming, expensive, a huge drain on office staff time and potentially demeaning for desperate parents who are under financial pressure.
Food poverty can be subtle; we’ve noticed that many lunchboxes now contain cheaper, calorie-dense foods and less fresh produce.
It’s in everybody’s interest if the school meal market is functioning well. Currently demand is going down (because families are feeling the pinch) and costs are going up (energy and food). Many of our suppliers will go out of business if these trends continue. The economies of scale with universal eligibility would mean that the business model is more sustainable.
Obesity and malnutrition are both rising at an alarming rate, so isn’t a very sensible first step just to make sure that all children have access to at least one nutritious meal?
We seem very keen on school uniform on the grounds of it being a great social leveler, but wouldn’t equal access to food be an even greater one?
Surely though, if that’s not immediately affordable, there must be another way. Could widening eligibility to all families who qualify for universal credit be a sensible first step?
This is part of our Food policy work.
We believe that school food should be a consistent and non-partisan priority for government. We use our real-world experience of working in schools to strengthen our campaigns on children’s health, access to nutritious school meals and food education.