School meals service thriving after post-Carillion changes
Back in the cold and snowy days of January 2018 there was time when around 6,500 school pupils in Oxfordshire may have to have had cold packed lunches delivered to them by firefighters in place of a warm nutritional meal.
The aftermath of the collapse of Carillion meant that Oxfordshire County Council had to quickly put in place contingency plans to ensure that young people in schools were not left without a lunch.
Nine months on and the new school meals service – which saw staff and facilities managed by Carillion taken in-house by Oxfordshire County Council – is thriving.
News of Carillion’s demise meant big changes in many different spheres across the entire country and school meals was just one aspect of the response Oxfordshire County Council had to make.
Making sure young children have a nourishing middle of the day meal is not something that can be postponed or delayed however – so the response had to be immediate and effective.
Oxfordshire County Council’s Property Delivery Manager Gail Witchell was at the centre of the operation in the days following Carillion’s demise.
She said: “Looking back to last Winter it was very hard work at first. There was so much to do. We transferred the service Carillion provided back to the county council, which is where it had been previously – and the reassuring part about that was that lots of the 150 staff who worked locally for Carillion on school meals had therefore previously worked for the county council. From day one they gave us great support.
“We had to get it right. One of the county council’s over-arching aims is to provide a good start in life for every child so things going awry with the provision of school meals was not an option for us.
“From very early on things went smoothly and there were no hiccups. In a sense we can say that it was business as usual from day one. All of the staff turned up for work even though their employer was all over the news bulletins due to its collapse. As a contingency, we had firefighters ready to deliver packed lunches but this was never needed. By May and June the service was stable, both front and back of house.
“We’ve currently serve 60 schools – the vast majority of which are primary schools. So we provide a catering service to 25 per cent of Oxfordshire’s primary schools. Carillion had served 80 schools – some decided to go to private sector school lunch providers when the change happened. We now serve four academies – so it isn’t just the local education authority schools that we cater for.
“We’re effectively now therefore, in a marketplace with other school meals providers. It’s been great to see small numbers of schools opt to return to our service over the weeks and months since last Winter and we’re obviously ambitious that this should continue.”
Gail, who has worked for the county council on school meals provision for the last ten years, added: “We’re getting good feedback from schools and it has been a busy but exciting time. Our staff are really motivated and happy to be back with the council.
“For them it feels like they are back home. We’ve invested in a programme of revamping servery areas within schools to make a clean, new and vibrant identity to dining areas.
“All in all we are pleased to have stabilised the service and whilst we understand that the future will bring many further challenges we continue to strive to provide the best possible school meal service for the children of Oxfordshire.”