Free school meal pay-outs leave colleges feeling short-changed

Colleges claim they have been left short-changed after learning how much money they will receive to pay for the government’s new universal free school meals programme.

The Education Funding Agency (EFA) wrote to colleges on Monday (May 12) to tell them how much they would receive to pay for meals for disadvantaged learners.

It comes after it was revealed last month that colleges would receive funding equivalent to £2.41 per meal per learner, based on 4.5 days a week and 33 weeks of study a year.

But many providers have complained that the figures they received, which are based on data from previous years, are much lower than what they were expecting,

The extra money is good news, but as the guidance was issued in April and the allocations in May, colleges are going to have to move quickly to get arrangements in place by September. Schools have had twice as much time to prepare for infant free school meals.

and the relatively low government contribution towards set-up costs has also been criticised by the Association of Colleges (AoC).

The DfE was not able to provide a full list of allocations, but a survey of 79 college leaders conducted by FE Week showed that money for set-up costs amounts in most cases to 5 per cent of the total allocation, but capped at £6,000, which means bigger colleges with large allocations will lose out.

The survey also revealed many providers felt they had been short-changed because the number of entitled learners calculated by the EFA was different to the number worked out by the providers themselves.

East Durham College learner services director Mark Moore said the £138,876 his college had been allocated was enough to pay for around 200 meals, when the college paid bursaries to more than 1,000 learners with low household incomes.

He said: “This is yet another burden placed on colleges to administer. In times when college budgets are being cut we are increasingly managing devolved funding. Free school meals is just another to add to the list, along with 24+ advanced learner loans and the bursary which is managed at learner level, high needs funding, again, managed at learner level with masses of localised bureaucracy.

“Adults additional learning support is also managed at learner level along with 16 to 18 vulnerable bursaries. The government is trimming back on costs in their departments and passing the load to individual colleges whose budgets are not being increased to reflect the additional work required.”

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the AoC, said: “The extra money is good news, but as the guidance was issued in April and the allocations in May, colleges are going to have to move quickly to get arrangements in place by September. Schools have had twice as much time to prepare for infant free school meals.

“Colleges educate the majority of low-income 16 to 18-year-olds and so they will get the majority of the money available, but the start-up funding doesn’t really cover the full cost. Once the arrangements have settled in, it would be worth looking at whether the management of this could be combined with other 16 to 18 support funding.”
The Education Funding Agency declined to comment.