Schools across the region are being forced to divert money from other budgets to cover the Government’s shortfall on free school meals.
More than 68,500 children in the North East in their first three years of school are entitled to a free lunch under a new £1bn scheme, spearheaded by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
From this term, all four to seven-year-olds in state-funded primary schools will tuck into a free hot meal at lunchtime every day.
But research published by the Local Government Association (LGA) shows that government funding to bring school kitchens up to scratch has fallen short in almost half of local authority areas in England.
Schools and councils have had to find money from elsewhere to make free school meals a reality within the Government’s timescale, the LGA study has found.
Newcastle City Council leader and vice chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, Nick Forbes, says the scheme has lead to unintended consequences on school maintenance budgets.
He said: “Nobody argues that this is a sensible policy, but it does mean that many essential repairs in classrooms will have to be put on the back burner.
“Schools have had to make the impossible choice; do they repair their leaky roof or put in place this national policy?
“Rural schools in the likes of Northumberland are particularly affected because the Government is paying a flat rate for the free school meals and economies of scale will be critical to delivering the policy within the allocated funding.
“However rural schools, especially small ones – which only have an extra £3,000 guaranteed for the first year to help – are likely to struggle in the longer term.
“The Government simply didn’t make enough money available to implement this policy in the timescale they set for it.”
In Gateshead, 5,221 primary school children will receive a free school meal while 5,698 in North Tyneside are eligible.
In Northumberland 6,631 children will pick up a school dinner from this week, 3,935 children in South Tyneside, 5,900 in Newcastle, and 13,439 in County Durham.
The Government handed Durham County Council £1.1m to improve kitchen and dining facilities in schools in order to provide the free school meals.
Some schools have contributed a combined £157,236 of their own finances to further upgrade their kitchen and dining facilities in preparation for the changes.
Alison Young, health and wellbeing operational lead at Durham County Council, said: “The success of the pilot between 2009 and 2011 showed that children achieved up to two months more academic progress than those who didn’t receive free school meals.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “All the evidence, including the pilots in Durham and Newham, shows that free school meals will not only help ease the pressure on household budgets and encourage positive eating, but will also help improve concentration and raise educational performance so that, regardless of their background, every child can have the best possible start in life.
“This is one of most progressive changes to our school system for a long time so there will always be critics but that won’t cloud my goal to create a level playing field for all of our children so their success will be determined by their talents and efforts alone and not by their parents’ bank balance.”