Norfolk schools ‘will be ready’ to give all infants free school meals

Headteacher Clare Fletcher said she and senior colleagues had to spend huge amounts of time preparing for free school meals for infants Headteacher Clare Fletcher said she and senior colleagues had to spend huge amounts of time preparing for free school meals for infants

Friday, June 13, 2014
7:30 AM

All Norfolk primary schools will be ready to give all infants free hot meals from September - but heads still don’t know if their budgets will be hit by the government initiative.

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Case study: Preparation for free meals “quite a headache”

Clare Fletcher, headteacher of the infants and junior schools at North Walsham, said planning for the introduction of universal free school meals for infants had been “quite a headache”, although she was lucky her school already has a large kitchen.

It conducted a survey of parents about likely interest in free meals, and based on that is planning for a take up rate between 50pc and 80pc.

The school has a four-week menu, with 20 different meals, and teachers will take a daily register of how many pupils will have a free meal.

Mrs Fletcher said: “Ultimately, I won’t know how many meals I have to pay for until I add up the number of meals served. Hopefully the figures will balance.”

The initiative has also meant a rethink of the lunch hour, with the younger children having 15 minutes to eat on their own before the older children join them.

However, Mrs Fletcher said the infants could take up to an hour to eat their food, and will need help from dinner ladies and older children, so the school is employing three new dinner ladies.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced the introduction of universal free school meals for the youngest school children last September, but the policy has suffered claims it was rushed through and underfunded.

Although many Norfolk schools have conducted surveys of parents to gauge interest in the free meals, they are having to estimate how many children will take them up, and so what it will cost them. They also face higher energy costs, and some are hiring more staff.

Clare Fletcher, headteacher of North Walsham infant and junior schools, said: “It’s a huge logistical operation and I think a hot meal for every child should happen, but I’m not sure the way it has been funded is the fairest, or the numbers will add up.

“I think it’s a grand political gesture that was needed at the time. Smaller schools are in a terrible situation if they have no way to cook a hot meal.”

Norfolk received £1.7m from the government to cover set up costs, and the county council completed surveys of 373 primary schools by May 31 to assess essential work that was needed, and follow up visits by engineers to 150 schools are “nearly complete”.

Chris Hey, the council’s head of place planning and organisation in children’s services, said these changes should be delivered within the £1.7m grant.

Modifications include increasing electricity capacity, improving kitchen ventilation and new fridges, and four or five schools need new kitchens, which will not be completed by the start of the new year.

Mr Hey said: “This has been a very challenging initiative for schools, but we are confident schools in Norfolk will be able to deliver the entitlement.”

Do you support free school meals? Email martin.george@archant.co.uk

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