PFI schools stuck with junk dinners
by Caroline Colebrook
THE GOVERNMENT last month promised to impose new nutritional standards for school dinners after the television series by campaigning chef Jamie Oliver revealed the appalling standard of food served in many schools and the effects it has on children’s health and ability to learn.
But some 450 schools are likely to exempt from the new standards because they are tied into 25-year contracts with private suppliers of ready cooked food and cannot withdraw without heavy financial penalties.
These are all schools built or renovated under private finance initiative schemes and are tied into long-term contracts with private catering companies.
Many of these schools have been built without proper on-site kitchens so they cannot opt to have freshly cooked healthy meals prepared at the schools. They only have facilities to re-heat the junk food supplied to them by the contract caterers.
The problem came to light when a campaign group was set up in the London Borough of Merton after the Jamie Oliver TV series on to demand better school meals in the borough.
The campaigners found that six new PFI schools are likely to be exempt from the new guidelines because of their long-tern contracts with caterers.
The schools are locked into 25-year contracts with a company called New Schools. This has sub-contracted all its services for 25 years to Atkins Asset Management, which in turn has sub-contracted the catering for the schools to Scholarest catering.
This company was featured in the Jamie Oliver television programmes as one of the main suppliers of junk food.
When Oliver interviewed a company representative he was told that Scholarest supplied the highly processed, high-fat, high-salt low-nutrition food because they had to give a choice and that was what children liked.
But Oliver pointed out that young children do not understand their own nutritional needs. Fed only on junk food, they are reluctant to try the proper, freshly cooked food, including fruit and vegetables they so desperately need.
grow to like
Once junk food is removed from the options, the children quickly grow to like the better quality food.
But the junk food is cheap to supply. Oliver highlighted the problems faced by schools that can often only spend 37 pence per meal on ingredients. The Government has now agreed to raise this to 50 pence last this year.
Roger Casale, the Labour MP for Wimbledon, next door to Merton, has been working on a report on PFI schools for Education Minister Stephen Twigg before the election was called.
He said: “There is a great deal of room for improvement” in Merton’s school meals. “For contractors what matters is the bottom line.
“But it isn’t just about getting food on plates as quickly and cheaply as possible. There are wider issues involved and we don’t know how far they were taken into account when contracts were drawn up. We are in new territory here with PFI contracts.”
Many of the PFI school contracts include the PFI companies putting vending machines for junk food snacks and fizzy drinks around the school. If they are removed, any resulting financial loss to the companies will be cut from the school budgets.
Some schools that are not PFI schools are also locked into long-tern contracts with private caterers and could face “substantial financial penalties” if they try to withdraw.
Schools in the London Borough of Islington are tied into a five-year contract with Scholarest by CEA – the organisation brought in to run education in the borough after the Government decided that the local education authority was “failing”
One school reported that if it withdrew from the contract with Scholarest it would be legally obliged to compensate the company for any loss of expected profits.
Currently CEA is considering a plan for all Islington schools to opt out of the Scholarest contract a year early in 2006.
Meanwhile the Merton campaigning group is faced with a bewildering complex of contracts and subcontracts, unable to work out where the responsibility lies.
Jackie Schneider, a parent who is part of the campaign, said: “Judging by the response we have had, this is clearly a concern among parents and governors across the borough.
“The unbalanced diet in our schools is affecting the health of our children now, and will damage their health for years. They deserve better.”
The campaign has had an uphill battle to get drinking water available at mealtimes in one of the schools, as an alternative to sugary fizzy drinks.
Scholarest says its 25-year catering contract with Merton is subject to five-yearly “commercial review” but said it was not aware of any complaints about its food.
London police sacked after race crimes
TWO METROPOLITAN police constables were dismissed from the force recently after being found guilty of racially aggravated crimes on separate occasions. Both officers were off duty when they committed their crimes.
David Davies was found guilty at the Guildhall Magistrates Court after an incident at Piccadilly Circus Underground station. He had been drinking when he barged into the operations room and demanded that station staff call the police. He kicked, punched and racially abused the black station supervisor.
He received a one-year conditional discharge and ordered to pay £750 compensation. Later an internal disciplinary board demanded his resignation from the Met.
PC Stuart Inglis was sacked from the Met last month after being found guilty at Lancaster Magistrates Court of racially aggravated disorder. He was fined £250 and ordered to pay £50 compensation to the victim.