Council review of school meals as academies opt out

Gordon Castle at the Duchess's High School in Alnwick.
Gordon Castle at the Duchess's High School in Alnwick.

There are concerns over the viability of the school-meals service provided by the county council, as more schools opt out to provide their own service to pupils.

At a recent meeting of Northumberland County Council’s economic prosperity and strategic services scrutiny committee, interim head of property services, Paul Leo, told members about a review of the service.

He explained that it was sparked by a Sunday Times article which revealed that the cost of school meals in Northumberland were among the lowest in the country.

The review was designed to check whether the council was getting good value and whether it was providing a good service, which Mr Leo said was the case.

However, the meals service is also being looked at as part of a wider review of services provided to schools, including caretaking and cleaning.

Currently it serves 67 out of 177 schools in the county, of which most are first/primary schools.

No secondary or high schools use the service, but James Calvert Spence College has expressed interest in using the service from April this year.

The service employs nearly 250 catering staff with a further 10 supervisory and support staff based at County Hall and elsewhere.

These 10 also manage caretaking and cleaning staff in schools and county-council buildings and school-crossing patrols.

At the meeting, Coun Gordon Castle, one of Alnwick’s ward members, asked if the trend was a downward one with schools pulling out of the service.

Mr Leo said: “Yes, although we hope to get James Calvert Spence College back this year.

“Schools we do provide for tend to be the smaller ones and are less competitive by definition.”

Coun Castle went on to suggest that as the numbers decline, the costs will increase and the viability of the service drops.

“I think we are at that point,” replied Mr Leo. “It’s about caretaking and cleaning as well and it’s about talking to the schools and seeing what they need and want.

“For the smaller schools, there can be little doubt (that the county council provides a competitive service).

“In the short term, larger schools will get a saving by going it alone.

“The problem will be further down the track when you need to reprocure and check your kitchen standards.

“Ultimately, it’s the schools’ responsibility and we can’t force them down any route.”