UNISON study finds drop in school meals services

School meals help keep children healthy and promote a healthy diet. UNISON is concerned that the price of school meals has risen faster than inflation, while services have become increasingly fragmented as private companies take over.

A new UNISON report has found the price of school meals increased by 5.6% in primary schools, 3.9% in middle schools and 3.6% in secondary schools, over the past six years. Inflation increased by only 1.7%.

The highest price for a primary school meal is £1.65 in Wandsworth Ð the lowest 95p in Dumfries and Galloway; in middle schools prices range from £1.15 in Islington to £1.55 in Norfolk and Northumberland; in secondary schools, from £1.00 in Dumfries and Galloway to £1.85 in Edinburgh and Bexley.

Standard hot meals are rare in secondary and middle schools Ð only 13% of Local Education Authorities surveyed provide a standard meal service. 63% provide a cafeteria service in all their schools and another 26% in some schools.

71% of primary and special schools surveyed had the standard school meal set up. Eight per cent provided a cafeteria service in all their schools while 20% provide it in some schools.

A small number of authorities, including Buckinghamshire and Dorset, provide packed lunches only.

UNISON surveyed the provision of school meals six years ago Ð the new report looks at changes since 1995.

The study found a dramatic drop in the number of authorities providing wholly in-house catering services Ð only 55% of those surveyed. Most contracting out is carried out by English authorities while schools in Scotland and Wales have a high proportion of in-house provision.

UNISON is particularly concerned at the emergence of a two-tier workforce in privatised services with new starters often employed on inferior pay and conditions.

UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis said:

ÒOur UNISON Ôdinner ladiesÕ are the linchpin of the school meals service. Their skill and commitment are the key to its success. But so often they have paid the price when cost cutting has taken place. Attacks on retainer pay and ineligibility for jobseekerÕs allowance during the holidays have reduced many to a meagre annual income, with an hourly rate below the statutory minimum wage.Ó

UNISON is particularly concerned about the delivery of school meals in the London Borough of Hackney, where private contractor Initial Catering Services tried to walk away from its five-year contract with the council. The contract covers 57 primary schools and nine secondary schools. Only court action by Hackney forced Initial to continue to provide food until the end of last term, but students face a sandwich only service this term.

HackneyÕs 30,000 school children come from the CapitalÕs most deprived area and almost all are entitled to a fee school meal. For many, it is their only hot meal of the day.

Dave Prentis added:

ÒThis is what happens when private greed replaces the public service ethos Ð the private contractor appears to have no interest in what happens to the children of Hackney or the schools meals staff, who face an uncertain future.

ÒWe can only hope this is not the start of a pattern that gets repeated across the country. UNISON wants to see a solid commitment to a national, comprehensive school meals service which is adequately funded and puts our kids on the road to a healthy future.Ó