Phorto credit: PA
The Conservative’s election manifesto pledge to provide a free breakfast for every primary school pupil in England could require more than five times the funding the party has pledged to the scheme, academics have warned.
Experts analysing the plans re-costed them at between £200m and £400m – well above the £60m currently set aside.
Figures compiled by think-tank Education Datalab showed that even if just one in five of England's 3.6m primary school pupils ate just 25p worth of food, the costs for the daily breakfast clubs would be £100m a year more than the party’s estimate.
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A Conservative Party spokesman said the original costing of the offer was based on the 25% take-up rate of a charitable programme, provided at a cost of 25 pence per meal.
Speaking at an Education Media Centre press briefing, Education Datalab director Dr Rebecca Allen said: "They say it's going to cost £60m but we think it's going to cost something over £200m to £400m.
"It's a problem because they wanted to scrap universal free school meals for infants and take that and put it back into the general slug of the education budget.
"We think that they can't manage to do that if they are going to deliver free school breakfasts."
The Conservatives’ manifesto vow was to replace giving free lunches to all state school pupils up until the age of seven, with the estimated £650m savings to be recycled in to England’s stretched education budget.
However, Dr Allen said the move to put the savings back into the overall budget would be incompatible with providing free breakfasts.
The research team also found that the estimated 25% take-up rate failed to account for a potential rise in parents using the new school breakfast clubs as a childcare substitute.
“If breakfast clubs in schools act as a proper childcare substitute, we would presume that in the long run parents would switch from their existing provision of childminders and commercial providers into free breakfast clubs – and therefore we think take-up would be substantially in excess of 20%,” Dr Allen said.
Furthermore, the study queried the validity of the Conservatives' costings, which they say were based on a scheme known as Magic Breakfast, which relied on volunteers and thus did not account for staffing costs.
A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “These clubs didn’t have 100% uptake – only around 25% of children attended, as in a Department for Education trial of breakfast clubs – but they still had positive effects for all the children in the school.
“If many more children now start eating breakfast in school then the costs will go up but the evidence of two large trials is that they won’t.”
On the issue of staff numbers and costs, Education Datalab’s Dr Allen added: “We simply don’t have excess support staff or teaching assistants floating around in schools in the way we had three years ago.
“So regardless of which way you try to think of doing it, you can’t end up with a cost of £60m and you could end up with a really, really big number – and by that I mean £200m to £400m."