Bringing your school catering in-house can have benefits for your school finances while at the same time creating a better experience for students

Why would a school want to organize its own catering in-house? Surely the whole business of feeding students is time-consuming, complicated, fraught with health and safety regulations and simply not worth the hassle when your local authority will do it for you?

You are probably correct to be skeptical if your local authority already provides a quality service, meeting the needs of all your students at an acceptable cost. However if that is not the case, going it alone can offer significant benefits in terms of:

  • cost savings
  • efficiency of the operation
  • increased control.

So what caused the governors of my previous school to move away from the local authority’s meals provision? Well, they looked into the possibility of gaining the benefits above, with surprising results.

Cost savings

The cost of the service level agreement with our local authority (LA) was in the order of £81,000 per annum, mirroring very closely the amount of funding delegated for the provision of school meals. By going it alone, we accessed the same level of funding but managed to reduce our expenditure to around £66,000 per annum, saving about £15,000.

Some of these savings were effected by a reduction in staffing costs. The main drawback of the LA’s staffing system, from a financial viewpoint, was that staffing levels remained constant throughout the school year, irrespective of the volume of meals being produced. However, it was very simple to establish that during the summer term, around 30% less meals were being cooked, resulting in surplus staffing levels being maintained at such times.

Our answer was, therefore, to establish a nucleus of permanent staff, with their numbers based on the summer term’s volumes, with additional temporary or casual staff being recruited when necessary. The initial staffing reduction was effected via natural wastage, with staff who resigned over the months not being replaced.

One of the smartest moves we made was to forge a partnership with the Pelican Buying Company – their free service includes sourcing the best prices for your catering requirements, everything from fresh fruit to fat fryers! Their website is well worth checking out.

Apart from keeping costs down, it is of course essential to maximize your income. In this respect, it is no different to any other business – you need to get as many ‘customers’ through the door as possible! The most effective way to do this is by creating a menu which is affordable, tasty and nutritious. We did exactly this, and boosted the uptake even further by giving the students incentives for staying at school for dinners. As an example, one month we ran a raffle: every student who spent over £10 in the canteen during the month was entered into a prize draw. The winner won a state of the art iPod. This was such a ‘cool’ prize that uptake of school meals rose by around 10% during that month!

Efficiency of operation

The biggest problem that we faced as far as catering was concerned was that we had to get 1,500 students fed in our 50-minute lunch break and this just was not happening, certainly not without students having to rush their meals and sometimes miss the start of afternoon lessons. We could, of course, have extended the length of the lunch period but my view is that the needs of the students should drive the catering arrangements, not vice-versa.

So instead we:

  • introduced a fast-track till, servicing students who were buying just sandwiches or cold snacks
  • revamped the seating arrangements in the canteen, maximizing the use of the space available
  • introduced a pre-ordering system for staff and sixth-form students. They complete a simple form and hand it in before 11:00 am – this ensures that their order will be ready at lunchtime, with no need to queue!

Increased control

Managing our catering in-house gave us great opportunities for innovation, which included the following measures:

  • One of the first things that we did was to consult with our students, parents and governors about what should be available on the menu. Put simply, we asked them what they wanted, within the bounds of healthy eating guidelines and cost constraints.
  • We were able to dovetail our catering arrangements with other activities within the school. As an example, we held an ‘International Week’. On the Monday, all the menus were printed in French and we encouraged the students to order their food in that language and only speak French to each other in the dining area! Of course, English translations of the menu were available – or else total chaos might have ensued – but the result was that a great deal of fun was had by all and the event did no harm to our students’ language skills.
  • We included the catering staff in our staff performance review scheme. This was a great move – apart from motivating the staff, because they realized that managers were now taking an interest in them, the review meetings themselves were very revealing, as many staff had excellent ideas, but previously had had no ‘platform’ to air them.
  • As the catering staff are now under the school’s direct management, it is possible to identify training needs quickly and respond to those needs. An example of this is basic food hygiene training. Rather than send staff away on this course, we trained our head cook to be a trainer herself. The result: new staff got top quality training and a basic food hygiene certificate – both within hours of starting the job.

Challenges to consider

So you’re probably thinking: that’s all the goods news, but surely there must be problems and drawbacks to managing your own catering function?

Your first problem might be persuading your own governors to go-it-alone, particularly if few schools in your local authority have taken this path. This caution is understandable, and they will need to be convinced of the many benefits of managing it yourselves – not an easy task as I know from experience. My only advice would be to think it out from their perspective, anticipate the objections and make sure you have every angle covered before you present your case to them.

Once you have convinced your governors, winning over your LA will be your next hurdle. Apart from the fact that they will naturally be protective of a service which they currently deliver themselves, they will also have your school’s best interests at heart. They may worry that your new operation may not be able to deliver the required quality of catering at the right price. It’s your job to dispel those doubts.

The catering staff themselves will undoubtedly be a little apprehensive, too. They may be resistant to change and communicate this via their trade unions. I would recommend that you instigate open and frank consultation with the unions before you inform the staff about the intended changeover. In particular, reassure the unions that staff will be given the protection afforded to them via the TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings) regulations. These rules dictate that the existing terms and conditions of the catering staff will automatically transfer to their ‘new’ employment with the school. Check out the details on www.direct.gov.uk/en/employment.

Early consultation will not only get the unions on your side (which is always useful) but will show the staff that their jobs are not under threat and that you intend to treat them fairly. At my own school, we went one step further and pledged to raise their wages by one incremental point. The impact on the school budget was minimal but the effect on staff morale was tremendous. These were staff who in many cases had rarely received praise for their work. All of a sudden, their enthusiasm for providing a top class service knew no bounds.

One other ‘problem’ will undoubtedly rear its head: health and safety. You will be confronted by scaremongers who will tell you that cooking food for your students is nothing short of perilous and that an outbreak of E.coli or dysentery is virtually guaranteed the minute you go it alone. Do not listen to such nonsense. Two simple precautions will stand you in very good stead:

  • Make sure that your catering manager is bang up to date with current health and safety and food hygiene regulations and ensures that these rules are adhered to. The Food Standard Agency’s website is a mine of useful information, not only in terms of food hygiene regulations but about all aspects of starting up a new catering operation.
  • Contact the environmental health officers at your local authority before you take over our own operations and tell them that you want to run a squeaky-clean operation. We did this and found that they were very helpful, indeed. One of their officers visited our kitchens and was worth her weight in gold in terms of advice and support.

Future developments

Managing your own in-house catering can be great news for your students, staff and governors. However, it can get even better. You should consider the following:

Other schools
You could look into the possibility of extending your service to other schools in your area. Find out if they are satisfied with their current arrangements – you might be able to improve their catering and improve your own school budget.

Cashless catering
I have seen these systems in action at a number of schools and, run properly, the benefits are nothing short of amazing. Broadly speaking, each student is given a swipe card. Parents/carers then send in cheques (cash is acceptable if that is OK with your school) and the amounts are credited to the appropriate account.

There are many significant benefits: parents have more control, as daily spending limits can be set, and they can receive confirmation that students are eating in school and not buying junk food or sweets from local shops. Payment upfront means they do not have to find cash every day. From a student’s perspective, their anonymity is protected if they receive free school meals, queuing is reduced and they have no need to carry cash around, which can also reduce potential bullying.
One of the greatest things about cashless catering is that you can eventually extend the system to include cashless payments for everything from school trips to school uniforms and more. This is surely the way forward for schools.

Conclusions

Managing your own catering is hard work. It takes a lot of time, effort and energy. However, the potential benefits are significant – with sufficient enthusiasm and commitment, you can provide a really first class service delivered by highly motivated staff and save a lot of money. And remember not be put off by the obstacles – they are there to be overcome!

Gary Dawson is a school business manager with over 15 years’ experience in school financial management

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