Officials at the Department for Education (DfE) have told providers they can’t top up FE free meals allocations with Bursary Fund cash after it emerged a number of colleges were looking to boost the £2.41 hand-outs up to as much as £5.
General FE colleges and independent learning providers, from this month, are required by law to offer FE free meals to qualifying disadvantaged 16 to 18-year-olds.
And the government announced in April that providers would receive funding at a rate equivalent to £2.41 per student per meal taken — but FE Week understands a number of colleges wanted to give more with official guidance unclear on FE free meals top-up rules.
Providers were looking at topping up FE free meals allocations with funding from other sources, including the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund — usually dished out to help pay for education-related costs for disadvantaged learners including travel, clothing and books.
But the DfE “definitively” ruled out such practices issuing providers guidance on Thursday (September 4) after an enquiry from FE Week.
Kingston College was among those looking to boost learners’ money for food. A college spokesperson told FE Week: “We wanted to ensure that its most needy learners were ready and fit to learn across their timetable.
“In order to do this, we were exploring a £5 a-day allocation, which would entitle learners to a healthy breakfast, nominally £1.50 and lunch at £3.50.”
But, she added: “Like many other colleges in the country we were exploring the possibility of topping up the limited FE free meals allocation from bursary funds.
“However, the sector has now been given definitive guidance from the Education Funding Agency that this is not permissible. Kingston College will comply with the guidance.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “The situation is that institutions are not allowed to top up FE free meals funding from other support funding, including the 16 to 19 bursary fund.
“They can, however, use the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund to pay for FE free meals for people who would not otherwise be eligible, at the same rate of £2.41.
“We would like to stress this is not a change of rules. These are the same arrangements that were already in place.”
He added the 16 to 19 bursary could also be spent on schemes to encourage more learners who were entitled to FE free meals to claim the benefit.
A 157 Group spokesperson said: “It is early days for the new policy and we hope DfE will keep the rates under review to make sure colleges can offer nutritious meals. Colleges themselves will be best placed as time goes on to judge the amount they will need and we hope DfE will be receptive to their feedback.”
A spokesperson for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) said: “The FE free meals allowance is a helpful element to the support provided for all learners. It would be better if the allowance was higher.”
The Association of Colleges declined to comment.
So how much is an Education Funding Agency (EFA) FE free meals voucher worth?
The obvious answer is £2.41 as the EFA has said this is the maximum eligible learners can be given.
And yet until FE Week made inquiries with the EFA some colleges thought there was no maximum and were considering as much as £5.
So why two different answers and who is right?
The higher figure comes from colleges planning to top up the £2.41 with bursary funding — a different EFA pot.
Bursary funding is discretionary, and some providers have in previous years been using it for free meals worth more than £2.41.
But the EFA has now explicitly ruled out topping up and its word is final.
The need for EFA clarification, late changes by providers and two pots for free meals (with different rules) creates the potential for confusion, all of which should be of concern.
Combining FE free meals and bursary allocation seems the sensible solution.
Otherwise continued micromanagement by the EFA will leave a bitter taste in the mouth for what should be a popular policy.
Chris Henwood, editor