Myles Bremner, director of the School Food Plan, announces details of the Small School Taskforce Report.
the School Food Plan found that small schools, which serve less than 100 meals a day, seldom break even because of the fixed costs of catering in each school. The Small Schools Taskforce, an action from the School Food Plan, was set up in late 2013 to demonstrate how small schools can serve great school food at an affordable price. The Taskforce Report (shortly available at www.schoolfoodplan.com/smallschools) has brought together many examples of what small schools are doing well. It also details the results of a pilot to show how bulk purchase and regeneration of certain food would improve the economies of scale.
The pilot set out to provide an affordable complete catering offer, presenting a food, staffing and equipment offer for those schools; using food packaging and formats that work in other sectors challenged with similar issues.
A year and a half on from the publication of the School Food Plan, small school food provision is in a much better state. Hundreds of small schools that previously had no school meal provision are now serving hot meals. Only a tiny handful of schools have not yet got a hot meal service. Many small schools have received targeted support through the government funded support service – with excellent support and advice through the team of Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) advisors.
As of March 2015, the UIFSM advice line and team of advisors had supported 166 small schools with a range of approaches, from face to face meetings, telephone service support, and organising ‘What Works Well’ visits to other schools. Because of the economies of scale achieved and set funding levels provided through UIFSM, many small schools have found that they can now invest in an economically viable meal service, especially when take-up is over 100 meals a day. Anecdotally, small schools have also seen significant rises in meal take-up in Key Stage 2, particularly when changing from a transported meal service to one produced on site.
However, being able to deliver a great school food offer within the £2.30 allocation continues to be a challenge for small schools. It requires dedication and commitment across the school.
There are some amazing examples where this happens; schools that draw on the resource and support of members of the local community, parents and teachers. But this may not always be possible, and headteachers in small schools must work out how they can find the long lasting support they need.
Based on the experience of running the small schools pilot, and from evidence gleaned from other small school case studies, these are some of the observations the report makes:
• The finances are tight. Economies of scale are hard to achieve. There is often a strong reliance on volunteer help, or making sure that all staff are involved during meal times.
• Strong leadership and adopting a whole school approach to food is essential if small schools are to be able to deliver a viable food service.
• There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for small schools – each small school is different.
• Recruiting the right catering staff is so important – they have to be flexible, embrace change and always try new ways of working. Volunteer support (whether from parents, governors or members of the local community) helps enormously.
• Children and parents should be closely involved in decisions around menus and the food service.
• Small schools must make sure there is appropriate administrative support to deal with food orders, finance management etc.
• Small schools are more reliant on support and help from caterers and food suppliers.
• Lunch is an absolutely integral part of the school day for small schools. It’s all hands on deck to support getting children fed. When done well, it is a great social experience, adding to the culture and ethos of the school.
The taskforce has also made some recommendations. First, government should continue to provide additional capital investment to put back permanent production kitchens into small schools. It can be cheaper to produce meals in-house (whether from scratch or ‘regenerated’) than relying on daily hot transported meals, and cooking in school improves food quality and increases take-up.
Second, an ongoing small schools subsidy should be given to those schools serving fewer than 100 meals a day. The £2,300 additional UIFSM subsidy funding announced for schools with fewer than 150 pupils for 2015-16 is welcome news for small schools; but this will not cover all meal costs in some schools. The P&L for the pilot schools showed that meals for small schools could cost an additional 17p-36p per meal served; without any additional subsidy, this would lead to an annual loss.
Third, the school meal industry should continue to share and invest in regeneration innovation, seizing the opportunity to develop solutions for small schools. The report shows several different (but all innovative) ways that food producers, caterers and individual schools ensure that small schools can have a great school meals service. However, it also shows how there is a real need to ensure that staffing costs, particularly in food preparation and production, need to be controlled. Cooking from scratch with fresh produce every day can prove to be too expensive for some small schools. If this is the case, then small schools should continue to investigate the increased use of ‘cook-chill’ or frozen food as the main part of the meal, complemented with freshly prepared food, such as vegetables and salad. The technology in this area is improving all the time, which in turn is delivering better food quality. This is then leading to higher meal take-up. This innovation should continue to be developed and shared.
While the pilot schools were not able to prove it can be currently done within the £2.30 meal allocation, further innovation might well push costs further down without affecting the quality of the food or the overall school food culture.
In the next few months, the School Food Plan will be producing a Guidance Toolkit for small schools, bring together examples of how small schools are embedding a great school food culture, affordably and sustainably. If you have a great story to share, email [email protected]