Cabinet Member – Councillor Beca Brown
To consider a report on the above.
*11.30am – 12.00pm
*LUNCH BREAK – 12.00pm – 12.45pm
To accept the report and submit an update to the committee when the scheme will have been extended across the primary sector, with specific attention to the work undertaken to raise the numbers and investigate the reasons why some pupils do not take school meals, and ensure that consideration is given to the quality of the food, whilst also seeking to keep the benefit local.
The Cabinet Member and officers from the Education Department were welcomed to the meeting.
Submitted – the progress report of the Cabinet Member for Education on the free school meals project.
The Cabinet Member set out the context and the Senior Schools Manager provided an outline of the contents of the report.
Members were given an opportunity to ask questions and offer observations.
Individual members submitted the following observations:-
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Members were surprised that the percentage of pupils choosing free school meals under the schemes UPFSM (Universal Primary Free School Meals) and EFSM (Entitlement to Free School Meals) was so low (70% in September and 66% in October), and expressed concern that schools might miss out on other grants because parents who were eligible to claim free school meals under the EFSM scheme would no longer be doing so, as their children would receive free school meals regardless.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The free school meals project in schools was to be welcomed, and the member emphasised the importance of applying political pressure to ensure that the amount per meal received from the Welsh Government was protected, or even increased as we approached a period of cuts.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>We should celebrate the fact that 1305 UPFSM children who would not otherwise have received free school meals, had chosen school meals in September, which meant that the parents had extra money in their pockets to hopefully spend locally, thus giving a boost to the local economy.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Towards the future (accepting that the Department was currently very busy rolling out the project throughout the schools), it could be useful to conduct an annual consultation with parents and children in an attempt to increase the percentage that receive the meals.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The meals provided in the schools were balanced and nutritious, but that more flexibility in terms of the choice of food available could be a way of increasing the numbers that have school meals.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was important that the quality of the meals did not suffer as a result of higher costs of producing the meal.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Members welcomed the proposal to extend the offer to Year 2 pupils by January 2023.
In response to the observations and questions from members, the following was noted:-
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The 70% and 66% were average figures across all the county's schools, and the percentage was almost 100% in some schools, with other schools proving to be a much bigger challenge. It was noted further that funding was available to appoint an officer to look into the reasons why children refused school meals, and that this work would focus on those schools where there was a pattern of children who were eligible for free school meals not taking it up.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Welsh Government had identified an amount of £2.90 per pupil for the first phase, based on the average number of pupils who eat school meals in the county. They planned to re-examine this figure for the second phase, which would happen after Easter. As the cost of producing meals in schools had risen significantly since the scheme was first discussed, there was a review underway of the amount per meal that authorities would receive, but those discussions had not concluded yet.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The question of whether local government would need to fund any part of the scheme or not depended on whether the amount per meal set by the Welsh Government for every authority would be adequate. It was far easier and cheaper to produce a meal in a city than in rural counties, where there were a high number of smaller schools scattered over a large area, therefore we had to wait and see whether the amount per meal which would be set by the Welsh Government was enough to cover the costs in Gwynedd.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>There was no capacity or funding available to extend the scheme to the secondary sector, but should the Welsh Government announce that it planned to do this and fund it, then the Service would certainly welcome this. Nevertheless, the situation would not be as easy in secondary schools, since secondary pupils were given a choice of different foods, and fewer of them opted for school meals too. Also, the work of identifying schools' needs in terms of their space for preparing food and the dining space available would be very challenging in some secondary schools.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>There was a needed to look at the bigger picture to try and understand why children chose not to take school meals, and see whether we could implement simple changes to improve the situation e.g. it was understood that children eating school dinners, and children who took in lunch-boxes, were made to sit separately in one school, therefore some children insisted on a lunch-box so they could sit with their friends. It was further noted that the Department planned on carrying out a major and important piece of work on the real cost of sending children to school, and this work, it was believed, would cast a light on all the hidden background costs.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>At times recently, suppliers of school meals had failed to supply some of the foods that were listed in the contract with the Council, and had supplied slightly different foods in their place. Certainly, those foods should be of the same standard as the usual foods, and meet the regulations in terms of nutrition etc.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>With regard to staffing, the Department was learning from experience this term regarding the number of children who were taking up the free school meals. The percentage might vary in different schools, which then affected how much extra staffing was needed. However, introducing the scheme gradually gave the Department the opportunity to better understand the trends in the different schools. The extra staffing would be a combination of adding to current staff hours where possible, together with some new appointments, and training would be provided within the service in the majority of cases. As with many other services, recruiting to the posts was proving challenging, but rather than depending on advertisements in the press and on social media alone, the Department was also working with a company that specialised in getting people back into the workplace.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The schools would be ready to offer free school meals to all Year 2 children in January 2023, and to all primary age children in September 2023. The work of building extensions to some schools continued, and others were awaiting the installation of equipment. In terms of schools that did not have food-production space, there was no intention to create new kitchens, and the food would continue to be delivered to those schools.
At the end of the discussion, the Head of Education Department noted that this project had been a good example of cross-departmental working, led by the Cabinet Member for Education and the Cabinet Member for Housing (who leads on Property matters), and he thanked the Property Team who had worked closely with the Senior Schools Manager and the Team. He further noted:-
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Referring to a member's comment that they should continue to apply political pressure with regard to funding the scheme appropriately, the chief education officers were also pressing this issue regularly in their national meetings.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>He agreed with the comment by a member that more flexibility was needed in terms of the choice of food available in order to increase the numbers that take up free school meals, and although the Welsh Government had established the commendable principle of providing a good standard of nutritious hot meals, he also believed that it would be possible to produce snacks that were just as nutritious and of the same standard.
To close, he wished the Senior Schools Manager well on his retirement in the new year, and thanked him for all his hard work over the years.
RESOLVED to accept the report and submit an update to the committee when the scheme has been extended across the primary sector, with specific attention to the work undertaken to increase the numbers and investigate the reasons why some pupils do not take school meals, and ensure that consideration is given to the quality of the food, whilst also seeking to keep the benefit local.