Published: 29 June, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON
PARENTS, unions and the Town Hall have all condemned a decision by a primary school to abandon free school meals for every child just months after opting out of local authority control.
Governors at William Tyndale School, in Upper Street, Islington, pressed ahead with a decision to become an academy – which means the school is funded directly from Whitehall – in November despite bitter opposition from some parents who at one point threatened to take legal action.
Now, just seven months later, the school says it has a hole in its budget and can no longer afford to pay for free school meals.
In a letter to parents it blamed the council for not stumping up the extra money. The Town Hall’s education chief dismissed this, however, saying that governors were warned that free school meals were an extra the school risked losing out on if it went it alone.
Islington’s Labour council has a flagship policy to provide free school meals for all children regardless of income. The popular policy not only saves hard-up parents £300 a year, but ensures that poorer children do not feel stigmatised and so stops any class division in the classroom.
Last year, three Islington primary schools decided to become academies, which means they are funded directly from Whitehall. The government says this gives them more freedom to spend their budget as they see fit.
In a letter signed by chair of governors Becky Crichton-Miller, parents were told this week that “after much deliberation and regret, the governing body has concluded that it is no longer possible [to continue universal free school meals] as the cost from our school budget is too high”.
While the decision does not affect families on benefits, everyone else will have to pay £2 a day for meals.
The letter adds that the cost of free school meals at William Tyndale is £140,000 a year. It then adds: “We had thought that Islington Council would either bring the UFSM [Universal Free School Meals] to an end, as most local authorities have done, or decide to include all children in Islington within the policy, as Southwark Council has done.
However, [in 2012] it decided to continue to pay for school meals for all children at Islington primary schools, but continue to exclude children who attend academy primary schools, even though these children are from families who contribute to the council tax which pays for these meals.
“The governing body has strongly opposed the council’s decision and we remain in discussion with them both directly and through the Department for Education in order to try to put right this iniquity.”
One parent contacted the Tribune to say that parents were up in arms over the decision. “We are furious,” she said. “We warned that this would happen. It will divide the school into us and them?”
But Labour councillor Richard Watts, the council’s education chief, dismissed the school’s claims. He said the figure of £140,000 a year was wrong.
He added that the government should be giving William Tyndale the same amount of money that all other primary schools receive from the Town Hall.
“We are checking with the Department for Education to see if this is the case because if it is it would not be fair that William Tyndale receives the money for school meals twice.”
He added that if the DfE was not matching the budget then the council would step in to resolve the problem.
“We think they should be getting the money from the government to pay for this from September onwards,” he said.
“There are significant errors of fact in the letter. But we do think free meals should be universal. We don’t want to exclude academies but we don’t want them to get the money twice.”
Alasdair Smith, of the Anti-Academies Alliance, said: “They were warned this might happen. The academy system promises a pot of gold with no consequences and that has seduced headteachers and governors. It’s not the case and schools need to know that.”
Ms Crichton-Miller said: “The governing body consider it is wholly inappropriate to respond to the points allegedly made by the local authority through the local press.”