Forget the food, it's the card and decor that count

I have seen the future of school meals and it is neon-lit with red bar stools, debit cards, maybe pop music and - oh yes - food. Bellahouston Academy, a Glasgow secondary, had the opportunity to rethink its dining room when the school was burnt down and had to be rebuilt. Now the room looks more like a McDonald's diner than a traditional dining hall - and the children love it.

But managers believe the decor is not the only reason that the number of paid meals provided has risen by 37 per cent, and the number of free meals by 50 per cent. More important, they believe, is the introduction of a debit card system of payment. Another school that has introduced "Qcard" cards as part of a pilot scheme, St Leonard's in Easterhouse, has seen sales leap by 24 per cent and free tickets by 5 per cent.

Spurred on by these results Glasgow is considering introducing the card into every secondary. With the technology costing approximately Pounds 15,000 per school, staff are investigating the possibility of leasing equipment which it is hoped will pay for itself with increased sales. Glasgow business systems manager Brendan Murphy estimates that seven out of every 10 calls into his office are from IT companies proposing such arrangements.

One of the many advantages of debit cards is that they make it impossible to identify those having a free meal. Particularly in secondary school, many children do not use their free meal tickets because of the stigma attached. Another virtue of the cards is that with some systems parents can ask for a print-out to see what their child is eating.

Glasgow is also investigating using the card scheme to encourage healthier eating . The idea is to award points for choosing healthy foods and reward them with prizes that could range from a free swim or round of golf at council facilities to book tokens.

Other councils have mixed experiences with debit card schemes. Highland Council lost Pounds 660,000 in the financial year 1995-96 after the introduction of smart cards. But Highland's direct services organisation manager, Norma Murray, believes the financial loss related not to the smart cards but to financial record-keeping, expenditure decisions and portion control. "The cards are an expense as the system does need administrative support," she says, "but they are not the reason for our financial situation. I would recommend them to other local authorities." The council is to continue with the system in 18 secondaries but with new management procedures from this month. Three of Highland's secondaries have incorporated an incentive scheme to encourage children to choose healthy foods.

Fife,meanwhile, is considering abandoning its gold, silver and bronze cards stamp promotion, despite a rise of 9 per cent in the up-take of school meals during the first three months of the scheme last year. Councillors were delighted by the increase, which translates into Pounds 155,000 recovered annual revenue, but want to look for a new incentive system which will be easier to administer, cost less (printing stickers cost Pounds 2,500) and be more effective in catching the imagination of secondary pupils.

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