SCHOOL staff and children staged a protest outside Barnsley Town Hall on Wednesday in an effort to appeal to ruling cabinet members who are set to consider the scrapping of the council’s ‘vital’ school meals service.

Backed by trade union UNISON, which represents the council’s catering workers, protesters turned out in their numbers to lodge objections to plans which could see 44 schools currently using the service needing to find someone else to provide meals to an estimated 8,000 children across the borough.

A Freedom of Information request given to the Chronicle by UNISON reveals a 142-page report, commissioned by the council into the future of its in-school catering, cost the council £21,600 - money which the trade union said should have been injected into the service.

However, Barnsley Council leader Sir Steve Houghton hit back following the demonstration and told the Chronicle the local authority is doing ‘all it can do’ to come up with a viable solution.

“There’s a total of 94 schools and 50 have already left the council’s school meals service, leaving 44,” he added. “Half of those have told us they are looking elsewhere, leaving just 22.

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“That’s obviously not sustainable and we’re looking at what we can do as a result but ultimately it’s not our decision what schools decide to do when they enter into academisation programmes, which the government’s keen on.

“It puts us in a difficult position as the smaller the pool of schools is, the more expensive it is to provide for. We’re in talks with the schools and we’re seeking assurances from them as to what their plans are but we’re doing all we can.”

Protesters warned the plan could result in job losses and pay cuts for 220 cooks and catering staff.

Headteachers at the protest urged bosses to ‘put children first’ and Jane Holcroft, head of school at St Michael’s and All Angels Catholic Primary School in Wombwell, told the Chronicle that the service was ‘vital’ to vulnerable children.

“We’re all very happy with the existing service and it’s something we value so much,” she added. “The provision that’s currently in place protects children and gives them a proper meal. Some children rely on this so it really is vital.

“The meals provided now are nutritious, they’re low in salt and sugar and a lot of work has been put into the service in order to make the offering healthier than ever.

“We have serious concerns about who will step in if the council decides to pull the plug. I’m constantly bombarded with emails about companies providing different services in schools but I can’t recall ever receiving an enquiry about someone wanting to take over the meals service.”

A spokesman from UNISON said the report, which is yet to be revealed to the public, recommended an investment in the catering structure.

“The report cost £21,600, including VAT, so to put that in perspective that’s around a quarter of the cost required to invest in the service, according to the report, and more than a cook earns on a full-time salary of £9 per hour,” the spokesman added.

“We find it astonishing that the council has commissioned a report costing more than £20,000 only to recommend that cabinet members ignore it. It’s a waste of public money and raises questions over the motive for scrapping such a vital public service for Barnsley’s children.

“We know from experience that if schools are forced to turn to the private sector then it will be school meals served on the cheap as every last penny of profit is squeezed out of the service by buying the cheapest ingredients and cooking the cheapest dinners.”

The report will be presented to cabinet on June 24 which will include feedback provided by trade unions, school representatives and school meals staff, while cabinet spokesman Coun Jenny Platts said youngsters will not be left without meals.

“The report will discuss all the viable options available for the future of the council’s school meals service,” she added.

“We want to make it clear that, despite what has been published in the media and on social media, children will not be losing their school meals. Whatever decision is made, our focus is on supporting schools to provide balanced, healthy, quality meals for our youngest residents.”