Case Studies

Southwark Council

Case Study: Southwark Council

Secondary pupils from all lower income families in Southwark to get free school meals

Pupils whose parents are struggling on Universal Credit, but are just above the free school meal threshold, will soon be eligible for a healthy free school meal in a ground-breaking initiative led by Southwark Council’s Public Health team.

An area of considerable deprivation, free school meals can be a lifeline for many families in Southwark, but the scheme is normally means-tested and many low income families miss out. Southwark Council is taking action across the borough’s 25 secondary schools to address this, offering all 11-16 year old pupils from Universal Credit families access to a free lunch.

Getting the right people on board

A major initiative like this takes considerable time and expertise to deliver. So we were delighted to be approached by our existing client at Southwark Council to help devise and implement the catering solution for rollout to all schools during September and October 2023.

In April 2023 Cohesion joined a multi-disciplinary Project Team formed by Southwark, led by Gillian Boundy, Head of Programme – Place and Health Improvement, Public Health, Children & Adult Services. We worked closely with Gillian and various colleagues in public health, children’s services, education and food policy consulting throughout.

From the outset we became aware that the council’s previous experience in projects of this scale was limited to primary schools. As experts in the secondary school sector, we helped the Project Team navigate its complex stakeholder and operating environment, to ensure the delivery of a bespoke and best value catering solution.

Understanding the starting point

First, we conducted a feasibility study evaluating 25 school kitchens in Southwark, looking at their current capacity and service style and creating a gap analysis on catering equipment, till points and staffing levels. At the same time, we conducted deep dives into each catering operation by:

  • analysing sales data in each school and illustrating buying behaviours
  • evaluating free school meals uptake in each school
  • evaluating School Food Standards compliance

Our findings were then put into a report to the Board with costed recommendations that would optimise the uptake of free school meals.

Finding the gaps

During our research we also discovered that from a total of nearly 20,000 students, free school meals eligibility was 51%. Of that 51%, only 50% of were taking their free school meal allowance regularly.

To address the hidden problem of thousands of vulnerable students not accessing their free meal entitlement, we helped Southwark Council determine the need for a robust stakeholder engagement strategy.

Providing the way forward

The solutions we proposed were:

  • £405k of equipment purchased and installed in 16 schools
  • £742k of labour costs to be included in the budget models for each school
  • a contract review and addendum process for outsourced services to include the conditions of grant for the project funding
  • overall budget of up to £1.2m needed per annum for food to feed up to 85% of Tower Hamlet pupils
  • a wider engagement plan for Headteachers, Business Managers and Chefs across the Borough to ensure full alignment and support with the project moving forward.

Equipment and Capability

We were then commissioned to manage the mobilisation phase for the project from September to October 2023.

We procured the equipment for Southwark in a compliant process to deliver best value for the equipment, lower ‘whole life’ operating costs and training for all staff in using the equipment. We project managed the site surveys, installations and commission in this milestone project for the council.

Contracts and Finance

Mobilising the financial review on an individual school basis, we prepared individual contract addendums for each school to support the project, introducing the new financial model and ensure the schools had meaningful KPIs to use with their contractors moving forward.

Outcome and impact

The whole project took 7 months to deliver from start to finish and resulted in a successful launch of the project on time and on budget.

We are now supporting Southwark schools from September to December 2023 to successfully launch and establish their new compliant food offer; managing queue flow and helping the catering teams manage food production effectively.

Key learnings

Don’t rush it – a project of this complexity and importance takes time and preparation and this homework makes all this difference.

Start early – any other local authorities considering the Southwark model need to get their project governance in place quickly, hire the best people (us!) and give the project a year for delivery.

Engage, engage, engage – don’t forget to bring your key stakeholders, schools and families with you on the journey, especially if there is already a huge gap in current free school meals take-up.

Find out more

For further information about our work with Southwark, or to see how we can help your council deliver something similar, please get in touch.