School meals axe - U-turn plea

A TEACHING union is urging people in Essex to lobby local politicians to get the county council to reverse its decision to scrap its centralised school meals service.

By Juliette Maxam

A TEACHING union is urging people in Essex to lobby local politicians to get the county council to reverse its decision to scrap its centralised school meals service.

Essex County Council will no longer provide a school meals service from April 2 this year. Leader Lord Hanningfield has written to headteachers telling them after this term schools will be responsible for providing their own lunches.

At the moment, the county council runs the service for 340 primary schools, with food and staff provided by caterers Scolarest .

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The decision, which Lord Hanningfield said was partly due to falling numbers of schools taking part in the centralised service making it uneconomical, has angered headteachers and governors, especially as they have little time to make new arrangements.

Last week Jan Blackwell, chair of the governors at North Primary School and Nursery, in Colchester, said her school would close down its kitchen altogether if the county pulls out of the service.

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Yesterday Colchester and North East Essex National Union of Teachers local secretary Fran Wagstaff said: "The National Union of Teachers is concerned about the welfare of many of the pupils who rely on this one hot meal in the middle of the day."

She added: "We are angry that this decision was taken with no consultation with schools or headteachers. It is the headteachers, who already have an enormous workload, who will have to shoulder this added burden of administration. With 12 weeks notice they are being asked to organise and provide meals for the children in their schools.

"The other people affected will be the catering staff, whose jobs may be threatened by this move."

Mrs Wagstaff said: "We urge everyone to contact their local county councillor and lobby Essex County Council to reconsider."

County councillor Julie Young, who has campaigned for an improvement to school meals for a year, is calling for the county council to return to providing school meals using its own in-house caterers.

Mrs Young, who predicts North School will not be alone in closing its kitchen, said: "I think it's just irresponsible to not have proper provision of school dinners."

She has written to Education Minister Charles Clarke asking him to intervene to ensure hot meals will be provided after April 1 and for a ruling on who is legally responsible for the service.

Lord Hanningfield said: "More and more schools are opting out of the county service therefore the overheads were getting bigger and bigger. It was inevitable. I wish I'd known earlier. There's no need for schools to close their kitchens. We will provide support. We have got three months. We have put 12 people in county hall working on it."

The county has pledged £1 million to help smaller schools with the costs of providing their own lunch service. Lord Hanningfield suggested schools could get meals from their local secondary schools.

Scolarest's contract runs out in April. It was put out to tender and the closest bid would have seen meals go up by 60p a day to £2, which would have needed £2 million funding from school budgets.

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