School set to close kitchen in meals row

A PRIMARY school said it has no alternative but to close its kitchen and stop cooking dinners because Essex County Council wants to scrap the school meals service.

A PRIMARY school said it has no alternative but to close its kitchen and stop cooking dinners because Essex County Council wants to scrap the school meals service.

From the start of next term, North Primary School and Nursery in Colchester, will not provide a hot school meals service to its pupils - unless the county council retracts its decision to axe its centralised school meals service.

Two school cooks stand to lose their jobs and the 60 pupils a day who have school meals would have to bring packed lunches. The school would still be legally obliged to provide daily cold meals for its 28 pupils entitled to free school dinners.

Lord Hanningfield, leader of Essex County Council, told schools just before the end of the autumn term that from the summer term they would have to sort out their own catering.

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At the moment the county council runs the schools meals service for 340 primary schools, which signed up to it a year ago. The meals are provided by caterers Scolarest, but the county council deals with the administration.

The catering contract, which ends in April, was put out to tender.

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The county council was not happy with any of the bids and so decided to scrap the service altogether. The most appropriate tender would have led to a price of £2 per head per meal, a 60p increase and would have cost £2 million to be met from schools budgets.

Now schools have just three months to find caterers and sort out new contracts, which has provoked outrage among headteachers and governors.

Jan Blackwell, chair of the governors at North Primary School, has to Lord Hanningfield calling for him to honour the group contract and warning him the school's governors are near to resigning over the matter.

Mrs Blackwell said: “I have to inform you that we, the governing body of North School, do not agree with or accept your decision to devolve this responsibility to schools.

“I have to advise you further, that should you continue with the decision to not honour the group contract we will have no alternative but to close our kitchens from April 2.”

Lord Hanningfield said: “There's no choice at all but what we are doing. More and more schools were 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 kitchens. We will provide support. We have got three months. We have put 12 people in county hall working on it. I found £1 million in three days to help smaller schools with the meals service. We will give more money next year if it's needed. I'm helping schools and I'm very upset by their reaction.”

Lord Hanningfield said he would have preferred to extend the existing contract until the end of the school year, but was bound by “legal niceties”

He suggested primary schools could get their meals from their local secondary schools.

North Primary School headteacher Alan Garnett said: “This is not just an issue for parents of children who have school meals. Money that's spent to meet the losses of the catering service will have to be diverted from other areas ie staffing and teaching resources.”

Mr Garnett is asking parents to lobby their county councillors.

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