SCHOOLS still face a shortfall of at least £300,000 to pay for free school lunches less than two weeks before the start of term.

All state-funded schools will have to start serving a hot meal for all pupils under the age of seven from the start of the September term.

The Government has said that this will save parents up to £400 a year in packed lunches.

But Oxfordshire County Council’s education head Melinda Tilley has slammed the scheme, calling it “stupid”, adding that parents will still have to pay for the food.

She said: “They say it will save parents money but who do they think will pay for it through tax? It will cost people money, not save it.”

Across the county, 123 primary schools – 53 per cent – needed new equipment or upgraded kitchen facilities to serve the increased number of hot meals.

The Government gave the council £1.47m to help, but Mrs Tilley said between £300,000 and £500,000 was still needed to complete the work.

She said: “We don’t know yet where the money will come from. We can ask schools for some but that feels unfair to me.

“We could also look at the maintenance budget but that feels unfair too. It will probably have to come from reserves. We don’t know the full extent of it.”

She said: “Giving all children a hot meal in the day is a good idea, but the vast majority of children are well looked after and well cared for and don’t need this.

“I could have spent it 100 different ways which are much better for disadvantaged children.”

Windmill Primary School in Headington has received £50,000 towards upgrading its facilities so it can double the number of hot lunches it serves.

Headteacher Lynn Knapp said: “It looks like over the last week we have had some new ovens and equipment put in.

“In theory we should be in business to cook nearly 400 meals a day in September. I wasn’t confident it was going to happen, so I’m quite pleased.”

But she said: “The money could be better spent. I don’t think all of our children need to have a free school meal. It’s a huge amount of money that could be spent on things they really need.”

Emma Bolam, mum to six-year-old Alex Bolam-Hussain, was looking forward to the scheme starting.

The Blackbird Leys resident, a scientist at Oxford University, said: “It’s great because he tends to eat more.

“The cooked school lunches at Orchard Meadow Primary School are a great alternative to the usual packed lunch.

“The school gives us a termly menu so we can see what our child will be given to eat each day.”

She said that now she no longer had to pay £2 a day for his lunch, she would save £390 a year, adding: “He seems to be eating far better by having cooked school lunches.”

A DfE spokesman: "Providing free school meals will help children do better in school, as well as helping them to eat more healthily while saving hardworking taxpayers up to £400 a year.

"We are pleased that so many local authorities recognise this, and that they are working with schools to make sure that families and children in their communities benefit from the new policy from this September.

"We have provided significant financial support to schools to help them deliver the policy, including over £1 billion over the next two years to pay for the costs of providing the meals. Schools and local authorities have also received additional money to help upgrade facilities and local authorities can decide whether they should top this up from their general maintenance budgets.

"Based on evidence collected from councils and schools themselves, we believe that all schools are on track to deliver free school meals in September. We are continuing to monitor school preparations taking place over the summer holidays and have a free support service in place to help deal with any issues that arise."

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