Ashley Walsh On Free School Dinners

oliver17:42 Friday 13th December 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[C]HRIS MANN: The Government’s pledge for free school lunches has been questioned by another Cambridgeshire councillor. From September next year, all 5 to 7 year olds in primary schools could be entitled to a free hot dinner. Ashley Walsh .. the Labour councillor for Petersfield is questioning whether our county’s schools are able to serve up that promise. Ashley, tell us what your concern is.

ASHLEY WALSH: Well I can beat your Christmas pun here Chris, because I can say we’re worried that Nick Clegg will go from being Father Christmas to The Grinch, because the Government hasn’t laid out clearly enough where the national money will come from to pay for new kitchens. We’re worried, and lots of professional organisations are worried, that they will have to reverse the “hot” commitment, the hot meal commitment, or they’ll have to get rid of the universal aspect of this promise.
CHRIS MANN: Now I understand you’ve got a claim here that 80 schools in the county will need urgent work on their kitchens. Where did you get that figure from?
ASHLEY WALSH: Yes. I asked an oral question at Full County Council on Wednesday, and Cllr David Harty the responsible Cabinet Member told me that 80 satellite schools, as he called them, would need expansion. I’m still waiting for the details of which schools these are. But anecdotally within the City of Cambridge I know schools that are worried that they might have to dip in to maintenance budgets, or building budgets, to help pay for this. They’re worried that Nick Clegg who’s leading the policy hasn’t laid out enough national money for this.
CHRIS MANN: OK. We asked the County Council to take part in this conversation. They weren’t able to provide someone at the notice we gave them. But perhaps we will at a future time. Have you got a view on this Mark Howell? (note: still in the studio from earlier interview)
MARK HOWELL: Well I believe that if people are going to promise nationally, then they should be there to honour it. It’s not just putting the food on the table, it’s making sure that the catering equipment and the staff are there as well. So yes.
CHRIS MANN: Because actually Cambridgeshire County Council is one of the leading councils in the whole Eastern region in terms of catering. I think they organise the catering for other counties, don’t they? They provide food and services for Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire and other counties.
ASHLEY WALSH: I think that is my understanding. But the other side of that coin is that Cambridgeshire is dropping down the Ofsted tables as a local authority even further. I should say that Labour wants this policy to work. It’s been shown in lots of other local authorities that it drives up standards.
CHRIS MANN: Mark, are you saying that kids shouldn’t have free school dinners?
ASHLEY WALSH: That’s why I’m taking such an interest in this, because I want the policy to work. I want the money to be secured. It’s shown to drive up educational standards across all social classes.
CHRIS MANN: The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement allocated an additional £150 million for general school maintenance budgets, to help with this. One presumes that might be enough.
ASHLEY WALSH: Well that’s right. The National Association of Head Teachers and other organisations say that won’t be enough. And there is a further complication in that the pupil premium, the Liberal Democrat’s flagship policy in national government, is based upon how many free school meals are being allocated within schools. And the Government has yet to tell any local authority how they will now allocate the pupil premium. So the worry is that that money will be eaten into, if it turns out that there isn’t enough money to extend kitchens.
CHRIS MANN: So, give us a deadline. How quickly do we need to know about this, do you think?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well as soon as urgently possible. The policy is to get it in by September 2014 for the next academic year. Now my understanding anecdotally is that schools just don’t think they can get it done in time. It turns out that this free school meal, another pun, is turning into a bit of a dog’s dinner. (LAUGHS)
CHRIS MANN: Oh dear. You should give those up. Thank you for joining us. Ashley Walsh, Labour councillor for Petersfield on the County Council, and Mark Howell from South Cambridgshire District Council. Gentlemen, thank you very much.