Free school meal failures dished up by TESS survey

Much of the ground gained in widening access to free food has been lost, our research reveals

Emma Seith

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The full extent of the Scottish government's failure to meet its free school meals target has been exposed by a new TESS survey.

From West Dunbartonshire Council scrapping universal free school meals in early primary to East Ayrshire Council abandoning its extension of free lunches to all P1 pupils, the survey shows that much of the ground the government gained in widening access to free meals two years ago has since been lost.

It also found that around a third of councils had abandoned policies such as universal free fruit for primary pupils (see panel).

In its 2007 election manifesto, the SNP pledged to deliver free meals for all P1 to P3 pupils. However, it later introduced flexibility, suggesting that councils could prioritise free school meals for children in the 20 per cent most deprived areas.

In August 2010, when councils were scheduled to introduce the free meals, West Dunbartonshire was the only authority to fully commit; 10 councils had no plans to extend free meals in any way; 10 intended to provide a free lunch to some pupils; and seven said they would serve a free breakfast. Four had no concrete plans.

West Dunbartonshire, however, stopped offering the service in April last year and other authorities have reneged on their more watered-down pledges.

Now, half of Scottish councils offer no extension to free meals, most citing financial reasons.

The authorities where extended provision was successfully maintained tended to deliver it as breakfast. West Lothian introduced free breakfast for P1-3 children in 26 primaries. Not only has this been maintained, but it is set to expand next month, with all schools offering a free breakfast to those in receipt of free meals.

The Western Isles had planned to offer free lunches to P1, extending this to P2 the following year and then P3, but it never got beyond free meals for P1 pupils and that stopped in the past year.

East Ayrshire pledged to deliver a free meal for all P1 pupils but the scheme only ran for a year and was withdrawn.

Falkirk Council promised to provide free meals to the P1 pupils in its most deprived areas but this ended last August. In the Borders, meanwhile, the council had planned to offer a free lunch for P1-3 pupils in the 13 primaries serving the most deprived communities, but a spokesman said it was no longer offering this due to "financial sustainability".

Clackmannanshire Council had considered extending free meals provision but this never materialised.

Some Scottish councils have never made any move to extend provision of free meals. Edinburgh maintained it already reached over 20 per cent of P1-3 pupils through the free meals it was obliged to provide.

News focus, page 10

In numbers

- 48.7 per cent - Scottish pupils taking a school meal, up from 47.8 per cent in 2011

- 53.2 per cent - primary pupils taking a school meal, the highest rate in 10 years

- 41.8 per cent - secondary pupils taking a school meal, the third annual increase

Free fruit squashed

A third of local authorities have stopped offering free fruit to pupils due to the tough financial climate and high levels of food wastage, the TESS survey found, though they often continued to offer it to those taking schools meals.

The councils that stopped were: Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, Clackmannanshire, Dumfries and Galloway, East Ayrshire, Moray, North Ayrshire, Borders, Stirling and West Lothian. Glasgow restricted free fruit to nursery children in January 2011.

Meanwhile, 17 councils continued to offer free universal fruit at certain ages and stages: Aberdeen, Angus, Dundee, East Lothian, East Renfrewshire, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Inverclyde, Midlothian, North Lanarkshire, Perth and Kinross, Renfrewshire, South Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and the Western Isles. There was no data for the four remaining councils.

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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