Case Studies

Tower Hamlets

Free school meals for all Tower Hamlets secondary pupils

Imagine the widespread health and learning benefits if all 11-16 year old pupils were guaranteed a healthy free school meal, every day. In Tower Hamlets, this is now a reality, as Mayor Lutfur Rahman made it one of his key election pledges. 

An area of considerable deprivation with 47% of the children in the borough living in poverty, free school meals can be a lifeline for many families in Tower Hamlets. However, the scheme is normally means-tested. So the Council’s commitment to rolling out free school meals to all pupils across the borough’s 20 secondary schools is an exciting and ground-breaking strategy. And one that involves a considerable amount of work and expertise to deliver.

Trusted experts

We were approached by our existing client at Tower Hamlets to help support the council in devising, developing and delivering the catering solution that would fulfil the Council’s initiative pledge and is being implemented from September 2023.

In early 2023 Cohesion joined a multi-disciplinary Project Board formed by Tower Hamlets leaders to manage all aspects of the project, alongside colleagues in public health, children’s services, education and food policy consulting. 

It was clear from the outset of the project that the borough’s previous experience in large scale projects was limited to primary schools. With our considerable experience in the secondary school sector, we helped the Project Board better understand this more complicated demographic and its operating environment to be able to devise an effective and appropriate catering solution.

Doing the homework

To be able to deliver the universal free school meals uptake, we conducted a feasibility study evaluating 20 school kitchens in Tower Hamlets, 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.

Finding the gaps

During our research we also discovered that from a total of 37,000 students, free school meals eligibility was 51%. And of that 51%, only 50% of were taking their free school meal allowance regularly. 

This highlighted a massive hidden problem whereby vulnerable students are not accessing their free meal entitlement. Tower Hamlets clearly needed to go big on its engagement strategy. 

Delivering the solution

The solutions we proposed were:

  • £660k of equipment purchased and installed in 16 schools
  • £480k 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
  • an overall budget of £3m per annum for food costs to feed up to 85% of Tower Hamlet pupils

Equipment and Capability

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

We procured the equipment for Tower Hamlets 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 8 months to deliver from start to finish and resulted in a successful launch of the project on time and on budget.  

We have are now supporting the 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

A project of this complexity and importance can’t be rushed and like learning, the preparation and homework really pays off. 

Our advice to any other local authorities considering the Tower Hamlets model is start early, get your project governance in place quickly, hire the best people (us!) and give yourself a year to do the work. 

And don’t forget to engage key stakeholders and schools as soon as possible. You’ll need them on board throughout as success rests on their support.

Find out more

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

Preparing to deliver UFSM to all Secondary School pupils was a unique and challenging project and Cohesion Consulting were a major player in its successful delivery.  Throughout the project they were totally committed to the task, delivering a survey report on all 20 schools within a very short timescale which formed the basis of a Cabinet report that was approved.  At every stage of the project, they offered practical and best value solutions that were achievable to ensure that schools could be ready to deliver UFSM.  Their expertise in project management, contract negotiations, commissioning and mobilisation was essential and throughout they were honest and approachable with the ability to engage at all levels with schools and the whole project team which made working with them a pleasure during this challenging but exciting project. 

Jenny Pittam Head of Contract Catering Services, London Borough of Tower Hamlets

An award winning project

London Borough of Tower Hamlets have won the #AllParliamentary #schoolfood awards at the APSE – Association for Public Service Excellence annual awards

 – first Council in UK to introduce #secondary #universalfreeschoolmeals
 – stuck neck out to introduce #fsm #autoenrolment meaning an additional 900 kids not registered for FSM now receiving them

Great work to the education, public health and to Jenny Pittam Rab Brownell and catering teams who led the way!!
(Bremner & Co and Glenn Campbell MIH Aidan Ross MIH Lindsay Cook #cohesion also proud to be a part of the team)

Award winning team at APSE - Association for Public Service Excellence