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Essex: Headteachers brand free school meals plan a ‘nightmare’ as Nick Clegg’s £1bn scheme criticised

PUBLISHED: 12:00 12 March 2014

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Cleggs £1billion scheme to provide free school meals to every five to seven-year-old came under renewed scrutiny when teachers in the county criticised the signature reform. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Cleggs £1billion scheme to provide free school meals to every five to seven-year-old came under renewed scrutiny when teachers in the county criticised the signature reform. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Headteachers in Essex last night branded the Government’s plan to offer free school meals to infants a “logistical nightmare” and an ill-thought out “headline-grabber”.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s £1billion scheme to provide free school meals to every five to seven-year-old came under renewed scrutiny yesterday when teachers in the county criticised the flagship reform for failing to address their concerns.

They warned their schools might not have the facilities to cope amid fears under-pressure headteachers are being given another “headache” in the face of dwindling budgets and increased expectations.

Essex County Council (ECC) yesterday announced it had received £3.157m from the Government to help schools carry out capital works ahead of the overhaul in September.

Mr Clegg insists the initiative will save struggling families £437 for each child every year and will have educational and health benefits.

Guidance from the Department for Education suggests schools could stagger or lengthen their lunch breaks, ask pupils to choose their meals two hours in advance or even bring in parents to chop vegetables and bake cakes.

Peter Anderson, headteacher of St Luke’s Primary School in Tiptree, which has 312 pupils, admitted it is going to be a “challenge”.

“There are going to be some real problems for schools,” he said.

“How are they going to produce that number of meals? Is the right infrastructure in place? Will it cut into their teaching time? Around 80% of our pupils will be entitled. This could be very significant for us. Where are we going to put them all?

“It was a headline-grabber which was a nice idea in principle but, sadly, has not been thought out by the Government and it will be too big a climbdown for them to say they need more money and an extra year to make it work properly.

“They are rushing it through a year before the general election and schools are getting caught in the cross-fire.”

Jerry Glazier, who represents Essex on the National Union of Teacher national executive and teaches in the county, said that while the scheme was welcomed, it could cause “logistical nightmares” for some headteachers.

“We recognise the logistical implementation of the policy is likely to cause major problems in some schools that have not got the infrastructure or the internal capacity to deliver it,” he said.

“The Government will have to organise properly how it can provide adequate resources to schools to enable the policy to be efficiently delivered.

“Will there be sufficient resources? Will the kitchen be big enough? Will there be enough equipment and staff? The evidence shows some schools are not going to get the resources they need to do it effectively.

“Headteachers have got enough pressures on them to deliver higher expectations and ensure schools keep up with Ofsted. It is just another headache for them.”

Jackie Moore, headteacher of St George’s Infant School and Nursery in Colchester, said “a lot of unknowns” are making planning for the scheme difficult.

“It is a good idea in principle but we could have done with more time to properly get things ready,” she added.

An ECC spokesman said: “We have been working very closely with all our schools to establish their need, make recommendations and our allocation of capital funding has been delegated to schools based upon their need and for items that will enable them to meet the requirement from September.”

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