SCHOOL bosses say this week will be the real test on whether a new free meals policy can work.

The new school term, and implementation of the government’s multi-million pound project, begins this week.

Dorset schools say they are ready to go – despite only having six months to get ready.

But concerns have been raised that plans have been rushed through without enough funding- and the real test will be this first week.

Under the plans, every child in reception, Year 1 and Year 2 in state-funded schools will receive a free school lunch.

The government allocated a pot of £883,430 for Dorset County Council to buy equipment for schools, including ovens, food servers and fridges. But the money does not cover staffing costs.

A spokeswoman for Dorset County Council said it had received ‘enough’ money to fund the programme with no shortfall, adding that the situation had been closely monitored all the way through.

She said: “As far as we know the schools will be ready on time. We were given the money and there was no shortfall.

“We had enough money to meet our needs at this point. Whether it will be true in future years I don’t know, but for this year the money is sufficient.

“The schools to this point as far as we know are ready to go.”

She added: “The test will be the first week back. We will be on tenterhooks waiting to see if it works properly.”

Around 11,000 school meals a day will be provided by new food contractor Chartwells, which won the agreement for the next four years.

Council bosses said the company’s kitchen will be Dorset-based, using Dorset ingredients for Dorset schools. Toni Coombs, Dorset County Council’s cabinet member for education, said she was ‘very pleased’ with the way it had come together, but added that the challenge to ensure everyone was ready on time should not be underestimated.

They had nine months’ notice that the policy would happen and six months’ notice for the funding.

Cllr Coombs said: “It’s been quite a challenge to get every school up to speed in time for September, both with the introduction of free school meals and with the new catering contract.”

Cllr Coombs said although the new contract will provide ‘locally sourced and locally produced’ meals, the market in Dorset had been ‘too immature’ to award the tender to a Dorset company.

The short time scale for implementation had made it ‘really difficult’.

Cllr Coombs paid tribute to all the officers and schools who had worked so hard to deliver the new programme.

She said: “I wouldn’t underestimate the challenge it has been to pull it off.”

CHARTWELLS will prepare and cook dinners for 94 schools across Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole, providing up to 11,000 meals a day.

Many local schools already use independent providers for meals and these arrangements will continue.

As well as the main Chartwells kitchen, based in Ferndown, there will be three smaller ones set up in Weymouth, Stalbridge and Bournemouth.

The Echo revealed last year how school meals were travelling more than 200 miles across country each day from a factory in Nottingham.

Schools say 'we're ready to go.'

CONIFERS Primary School Deputy Headteacher Emma Charlton-Garrard said they had doubled the number of cookers and the number of serving stations they had in order to provide the new school meals.

They had also done a trial run in the last week of term with the full service, to iron out any problems and adjusted the timings of lunch slightly to accommodate the new meal provision.

They will go from providing hot meals for around 150-170 pupils to catering for around 250-300.

She said they had been very lucky and by pro-active financial planning they had been in a position to go out and buy all the equipment they needed.

She said: “It's not been as big a turmoil as we thought.”

She added that schools in the Chesil Education Partnership, to which the school belongs, had all be supporting and advising each other.

A spokesman for Bincombe Valley Primary School said they would be ready for the launch.

He said: “We are working our hardest and we are almost there.

“We will be 100 percent by day one to provide a free hot school meal to all Key Stage 1 pupils.”

Headteacher Veronique Singer from Radipole Primary School said they were 'absolutely' ready for the new school term.

She said: “We don't envisage a problem at all. We made improvements to our kitchen in May ready for the increased take up.”

Village school hits out at blanket policy plans

ACTING headteacher at Cerne Abbas First School, David Vann, said he agreed with the ideology behind the scheme but hit out at the fact parents had not been consulted, neither had schools, and there had been no consideration given to individual school's situations.

Cerne Abbas First School was built in 1884 and has no kitchen, no hall and no space to create one. So the school, together with their federation partner Winterbourne Valley, will be working collaboratively with Sunninghill Prep School. Sunninghill will be using a majority of ingredients from local providers and making all the food on their site, this will be sent out to the other schools in hot boxes. The children and staff will then all sit down to a meal together in a 'family-style' setting. They will have to clear the classrooms as there is no other rooms to use for dining.

Cerne Abbas First School currently has four children having hot school meals and in September will see a ten-fold increase to 40 pupils, in a school size of 68.

Mr Vann said he was 'unimpressed' with the policy and said that '100 percent' the money could have been better spent.

He said: “I think the ideology is great. Let's feed children well and eating a balanced and nutritious diet.”

But he would question the application and the system put in place, Mr Vann said.

He said he felt the money should have been given to children in the greatest need rather than implemented in a blanket policy.

He added: “What's our moral purpose as educators? We need to be clear about where we are spending the money, on who and why.”

He added that the new meal system could be disruptive to classes and asked where the parental choice was.

Local food provider

CAROLINE Morgan, chief executive of Local Food Links Ltd, said the company were 'ready and raring to go,' ahead of the back-to-school deadline.

The amount of students the not-for-profit company feeds will double in the new term from around 1,300 meals a day to 2,500.

She said: “We will be ready. We are all systems go.”

The company now has a new food hub to meet the demands of the new school meals, based at Shillingstone Primary School in North Dorset. They will be providing meals for 32 schools.

Mrs Morgan said: “It's been quite complex to sort out and a lot of money has been borrowed to make it happen.”

She added that she thought the new scheme was very positive and would bring the culture of having a school meal back.

She said: “We feel we are ready to go so we are really happy about that.”

She added: “I think it's really positive. I think it's absolutely fantastic. I think there's a lot of positives- all the children will be fed together, the stigma will be removed.

“I think it's absolutely wonderful. It really will benefit a lot of children.”

She thanked the Charities Aid Foundation for their loan and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation for its loan.

She said: “It's been a real challenge to pull it all together, there wasn't much time.”

But she added that they had managed it and were now looking forward to the new school term.