Council leader says universal free school meals across Warwickshire are not affordable

It would cost the council £95,000 per week.
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The prospect of universal free school meals for primary-age children in Warwickshire appears to have been quashed.

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Leader of Warwickshire County Council Councillor Izzi Seccombe OBE (Con, Stour & the Vale) this week said the “perfect world” scenario that emanated from a recommendation by the county’s director of public health Dr Shade Agboola a year ago would cost £95,000 per week and could not be funded.

Shire Hall in Warwick which is home to Warwickshire County Council. Photo by Mike BakerShire Hall in Warwick which is home to Warwickshire County Council. Photo by Mike Baker
Shire Hall in Warwick which is home to Warwickshire County Council. Photo by Mike Baker
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It came after Labour group leader Councillor John Holland (Warwick West) continued to question the lack of progress on Dr Agboola’s recommendations from an annual report published in January 2023.

It was recommended at the time that the council’s Health and Wellbeing Board “explores the feasibility of free school meals for all primary school children in Warwickshire, as research shows that children are able to learn better in school if they have a full stomach”.

Updates in January this year said “a full literature review, evaluating the current provision, benefits, challenges, learning from others and key considerations”, had been run through as well as “available” data on current uptake and eligibility of free school meals and cost estimates.

That followed Dr Agboola’s comments, made in response to a query from Cllr Holland in September 2023, that kitchen capacity and cost issues may limit the scope to breakfast clubs.

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Dr Agboola’s most recent report was discussed at this week’s meeting for all county councillors with Cllr Holland picking up the baton again, pointing to similar provision being rolled out by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan in London.

“It seems to me that if we consult a doctor that gives us advice, we follow the treatment prescribed,” he said.

“That brings me to last year’s report where four recommendations were made. As far as I can see none of them have been implemented.

“The Health & Wellbeing Board was given the job of investigating a feasible scheme. Of course it is the schools’ portfolio holder that should introduce it.

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“I raised it at the Health & Wellbeing Board last year because September would be the time to start. I haven’t seen the result but I could quite believe that ‘we don’t have the money’ would be the answer – well why don’t we?

“Rishi Sunak gave £500 million for Eat Out to Help Out that spread Covid. Why can’t Warwickshire have £500 million so our children can reach their full potential in schools?”

Cllr Seccombe replied: “As you know, (they) are not actually recommendations to the council, they are in fact things we would want in a perfect world.

“We know too that the challenge around free school meals in Warwickshire is not something that fits within our budget.

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“We have four areas of demand-led services that occupy more than 70 per cent of our budget right now. If we add a fifth to that, there will be even less that we can do on universal services.

“I remind you that we would be looking at a cost pressure of £95,000 per week to this council to do free school meals in Warwickshire, something that we do not have.

“I notice too, particularly, that it was not in your budget proposal. It is rather difficult for you to come up with that now.”

Councillor Sarah Millar (Lab, Leamington Clarendon) argued the issue threw a spotlight on wider funding problems.

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“Councillor Seccombe, you talked about the report being what we would do in an ideal world,” she said.

“If we are not striving to create an ideal world or implement these recommendations and policies, what on earth are we all doing here?

“We had a report last year that talked about the cost of living crisis. We haven’t implemented any of those recommendations, again.

“This weekend there was a Guardian report about school leaders complaining that children are so tired and so hungry that they cannot learn, driving problems with behaviour, absence and mental health.

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“We heard today from residents and colleagues (in relation to a petition over special educational needs and disabilities – SEND) around the consequences of not funding public services, not funding the future of our children.

“The chickens are coming home to roost and we cannot be surprised by that.”

Deputy leader and portfolio holder for finance and property Councillor Peter Butlin (Con, Admirals & Cawston) pointed to the National School Breakfast Programme which is “75 per cent funded” by government as “a real opportunity to make sure people are fed in schools”.

He insisted he was “not complacent” about the issues raised but said: “We need to target where we put our money because there is little of it about at the minute.

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“A lot of councils are struggling to balance their books. Fortunately for us, we have managed to balance ours for the next five years, meaning we can deliver services into the future to address things like domestic abuse and mental health issues.”

Councillor Margaret Bell (Con, Hartshill & Mancetter), the county’s portfolio holder for adult social care and health, added: “Councillor Holland, you seem to imply that these Director of Public Health reports go out there and nothing happens.

“You specifically talk, again, about free school meals. The report asked for an investigation, we are doing that.

“There is a pilot in Michael Drayton School in Hartshill, key stage two children are being given, at this time, free school meals.

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“There will be a report on it, not just on the impact in terms of the children’s learning, et cetera, but also on the sustainability models – how we might try to make this wider. That is happening now.”