HEADTEACHERS in Oxford have claimed a free lunches policy has caused them huge issues as the first year of the policy draws to a close.
School meals became free for all pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 in September under a scheme introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
But as the end of the school year approaches, headteachers in some schools have said they have lost out on Pupil Premium funding, used to help disadvantaged pupils, due to fewer parents signing up.
The policy has also been criticised as being rushed through, with some schools lacking adequate kitchen and dining facilities.
Before automatic free school meals for every Key Stage 1 child, the Pupil Premium was dished out based on how many children were registered to get free lunches.
But now eligible parents must register separately for the school to receive the Pupil Premium for their children, worth £1,300 per student.
Oxfordshire headteachers have claimed many parents have not registered, because they are not aware of how the funding works or because of social stigma.
Rose Hill Primary School headteacher Sue Vermes said universal free school meals had caused it to lose out on funding.
According to Department for Education (DfE) figures, if every eligible Rose Hill parent had applied for the Pupil Premium in 2014/15, the school would have been entitled to £241,000.
She said: “Pupil Premium funding has gone down by £55,000.
“Part of it is definitely due to universal free school meals.
“Parents do not necessarily know that it has impacted on Pupil Premium.
“We have sent letters out and done prize draws for those who register to encourage more parents to sign up.”
Headteacher of Cutteslowe Primary School in Oxford, Jon Gray, said the school believed it had missed out on about £15,000 of Pupil Premium funding this academic year, which is roughly the equivalent of a teaching assistant’s salary.
According to the DfE, in 2014/15 there were 80 Cutteslowe pupils the Government classed as being eligible for Pupil Premium, meaning the school could have had a total of £105,000.
Mr Gray said the chas made up a “big” part of the school’s budget, adding: “We are now being very proactive about ensuring parents apply for the Pupil Premium.
“Some schools are offering free things like iPads or PE kits as an incentive.
“We’re not doing that but we have changed the application to make it as easy as possible for parents.
“The Government knows which families will qualify for Pupil Premium. What we really want is for them to release this information to us.”
The school has 520 pupils in total and the number taking a hot lunch has doubled to about 100 since the introduction of universal free school meals.
The Government invested £1.1m in Oxfordshire to improve school kitchens and dining facilities in order to deliver the programme.
Oxfordshire County Council cabinet member for education Melinda Tilley said: “I thought it was the stupidest idea [the Government] had ever had and I still do.
“It’s a universal service that probably about 85 per cent of parents don’t need. They can provide their own children with lunch or packed lunches.
“It caused immense problems trying to renovate and improve kitchens and it cost a huge amount of money.”
Windmill Primary School in Headington, Oxford, had long queues in the dining hall and staff giving up their lunch breaks to help when the scheme was introduced.
Uptake of free meals has been high in Reception this year, with 85 out of the 90 children sitting down to a hot meal.
But across Key Stage One uptake is only 70 per cent – 15 per cent lower than expected.
Headteacher Lynn Knapp said: “We had to make big adjustments to actually get the children through in a realistic amount of time but we have managed it and things have settled down.
“An awful lot of money is being invested in this. I always thought the money could be better spent on education around healthy lifestyles and teaching children to cook.”
Department for Education spokesman Mike Murphy-Pyle, said: “All infant pupils are now entitled to a nutritious, healthy free school meal, a move that gives them the fuel they need to concentrate inside and outside the classroom and establishes healthy eating habits for life, while saving parents up to £400 a year.”
He added: “There continues to be a very strong incentive for parents to sign up for pupil premium.
“We have also issued advice on best practice to schools.”
Mr Murphy-Pyle said that unclaimed money set aside for Pupil Premium would be distributed among schools, but not necessarily in line with the amounts each school was entitled to.
(Additional reporting by Luke Sproule)