Primary schools across Barnsley could face uncertainty over the future of their school meals service, a union has claimed, under a move which they believe could also put the jobs of 220 catering staff at risk.
Public sector union Unison say 44 primary schools could be left needing to find a new meals provider from the September term.
Barnsley Council say they are in confidential talks with trade unions over the future of primary school meals but insist none would be losing their ability to provide meals for pupils at lunchtimes, with “a number of options” being considered.
They say the union’s decision to publicise the dialogue will cause “undue stress” among council staff and Unison members.
Unison say they expect a report to go to the council’s ruling Cabinet in May, allowing councillors to vote on proposals to change the system.
That has been sparked, the union claims, by five of the 48 schools the council currently provides means for opting out of the service in favour of using the private sector.
The union claim a report which could go to the Cabinet recommends the council school meals service is scrapped because with reduced numbers of schools using it, the scheme would not make a profit.
According to the union, market analysts have suggested investing £80,000 to make the operation competitive. Unison say that could safeguard the future of jobs for the 220 staff involved, as well as ensuring continuity of the service for around 8,000 pupils who are served the meals they prepare.
UNISON Regional Organiser Robin Symonds said: “Cooking school meals should not be about making a profit, it should be about giving children in Barnsley the best start in life, and the plan has all the ingredients to be a disaster. This is a public service, not a business.
“Sadly Barnsley council seems to have lost sight of that and if councillors scrap the schools meals service it will be a dereliction of duty. They will be turning their backs on thousands of children with over 40 schools scrambling around to find a replacement service with very little notice.
“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.
“It will be our members who suffer too as wages and pension contributions could be cut and jobs may be lost. We believe that over £200,000 could be sucked out of the local economy through pay cuts and local providers not being used to buy ingredients.”
Coun Hannah Kitching, a Lib Dem who represents Penistone West ward, said she was unaware of the development but said: “The question is whether the council runs a school meals service to make a profit, or to ensure all pupils get a hot meal.
“Getting a hot meal at lunchtime is really important, especially for those from deprived backgrounds.
“I hope the council has done rigorous consultation with every school affected.”
A Barnsley Council spokesperson said: “We’re currently in confidential discussions with the trade unions as part of an agreed process we use to look at different ways of delivering our services.
“At this point in time, a number of options are being discussed and we’re gathering feedback from the trade unions.
“Schools will not be losing their school meal provision. We want to be clear that there’s still discussion and debate to happen around who provides this provision in the future and no decisions have been taken.
“It’s worrying that Unison has decided to break this confidentiality and cause undue stress to our staff and their members. This is something we’re looking into.”