Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has felt the full force of college student service leaders’ frustration over her department’s handling of FE free meals top-up rules.

Polly Harrow, chair of the National Association for Managers of Student Services (NAMSS), has written a powerful email (copy of email below) to Ms Morgan outlining how a Department for Education (DfE) U-turn on the policy had proved “extremely costly and time-consuming” for colleges.

The DfE issued new guidelines on Monday (September 15) stating that the FE free meal figure of £2.41 per learner could be boosted from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund and other sources — just a fortnight after telling colleges they couldn’t.

“I can tell you there is widespread frustration with the Department for Education’s U-turn over FE free meals funding,” wrote Ms Harrow, whose correspondence was seen by FE Week.

She added: “All this planning and re-planning has been extremely costly and time-consuming to colleges from an administrative perspective. It is also extremely frustrating.”

A DfE spokesperson, who confirmed “there has been a change in the policy,” said it would now be possible, for example, for a learner in receipt of the FE free meal £2.41 to be given a further 59p from other sources, including the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund, to have a meal to the value of £3.

The change in policy, he said, had been “decided to give them [providers] more freedom to their budgets for what they want to use them for”.

It means colleges that had originally been planning to top up the FE free meals handout before the Education Funding Agency told them they couldn’t, are reconsidering.

Among those told FE free meal top-ups were not allowed, before being told they were allowed, was Kingston College. Its principal, Peter Mayhew-Smith, told FE Week: “The recent change to the guidance on free meals has caused us some challenges as we now have to change the communication we’ve shared with our students again. We will do this and make sure we give our students the very best support and financial assistance we can offer.”

New College Durham confirmed it would top-up free meal funding to £2.50 and a Middlesbrough College spokesperson said: “Staff are now exploring funding sources for topping up”.

However, Ms Harrow told Ms Morgan that further clarification was needed on this point to determine how much topping up was acceptable.

She wrote: “We have been told we will have to ‘consider the value for money and reasonableness of such an enhancement to the £2.41 rate and must be able to justify this’.

“But are we supposed to know what a reasonable cost is before we think about justifying it?”

A DfE spokesperson declined to comment on criticism of its handling of FE free meals top-up rules, but said: “All colleges are free to use up to 5 per cent of their bursary to cover the admin costs of verifying students’ eligibility for free meals.”