AROUND 15,000 children in Cumbria are to be entitled to free school meals this autumn.
The change follows national legislation requiring all schools to provide a free meal for all pupils in reception and Years One and Two.
Cumbria County Council's ruling Cabinet rubber-stamped the proposal when it met last Thursday.
In Cumbria, 2,168 pupils across the age group received a free school meal in January last year – under the new rules the number will jump to around 15,000, said the authority.
But one head teacher branded the move a ‘false economy’ as it would mean paying out more in wages as staff were forced to work longer hours.
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Despite the council being given a pot of £1.15million to fund kitchen refurbishments or extensions to dining halls there are fears work may not be finished in time.
Schools have less than three months to adjust to feeding hundreds more pupils.
Judith Gore, head teacher at St Martin and St Mary CE Primary School, Windermere, said: “It’s a challenge and it’s rushed. It’s a massive amount of work to provide 140 more dinners than we used to.
“There isn’t just the meal, there’s extra staffing and making sure the parents want it. It is not one size fits all and that’s a potential problem.”
Coun Anne Burns, cabinet member for children’s services, admitted that adjusting to the demands of the new scheme would be difficult.
“It’s not easy when something like this gets dropped on you by government,” she said.
“We’re making sure that child-ren won’t suffer by working closely with schools to ensure they are fed nutritional meals.”
The council issued a statement saying pupils eating hot school dinners were healthier and performed better academically.
Despite the controversy, a straw poll conducted by the Gazette revealed most head teachers were happy with the plans.
Mike Poole, head of Stramongate Primary School, Kendal, said: “It will save parents £400 a year which will make a real difference. From a moral viewpoint it’s a good thing that children have a good quality hot school meal.”
David Cutis, managing director of Dolce Ltd, Cumbria’s largest supplier of school meals, reassured small, rural schools, some of which do not even have a kitchen, that their children would be fed.
“There is a nodding agree-ment between Cumbria’s catering companies that we will look at how we can supply them with food even if it makes us a bit of a loss,” he said.