Something to chew on

Ministers agree on a national roll-out of free school meals to all P1-3 pupils in Scotland.

Tes Editorial

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Free school meals are to be provided to every P1-3 child in Scotland, following successful trials in five local authorities.

The Government yesterday announced plans for legislation which would make nutritious daily lunches available throughout the country from August 2010.

Ministers decided on a national roll-out after a pilot scheme involving 35,000 children showed an increase in school meals uptake from 53 per cent to 75 per cent. Among pupils not registered for free school meals, the figure rose from 41 per cent to 69 per cent.

Feedback from the pilot, conducted independently by pollsters Ipsos MORI, found that some pupils were trying foods they had never eaten before and asking for more variety at home, including healthier meals. Parents, teachers, catering staff and authority officials were "very positive" about the scheme.

The pilot showed that uptake also increased among P1-3 pupils already registered for free school meals, from 89 per cent to 94 per cent. There was even a knock-on effect on those registered for free school meals in P4-7, where uptake rose from 47 per cent to 50 per cent.

The growing popularity of the free meals varied markedly by region, however. In Fife, there was a 32 per cent increase among those not registered for free meals, while Glasgow saw only a 22 per cent rise.

When former Scottish Socialist Party MSP Frances Curran introduced a bill for free meals for all primary school pupils in Scotland in 2006, it was estimated that the cost would be pound;73 million a year.

The Government said it could not put a figure on the cost of the national scheme in P1-3 as the concordat with local authorities meant each would implement the scheme individually using existing budgets.

The trial came to Pounds 5 million initially, with details yet to emerge of the cost of extending it to the end of the school year beyond an initial run to March. The Government stressed that it was not possible to extrapolate a Scotland-wide figure from these costs, as authorities would apply the new legislation in different ways.

The trial showed that costs could vary widely, with the estimated price per meal ranging from pound;1.79 in Fife to pound;4.65 in the Borders. The Government has targeted 2010 for the national rollout to give authorities time to apply the lessons of the pilot to local circumstances and negotiate contracts with suppliers.

Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, said: "Now every child in those vitally important early years will have the opportunity to enjoy those same experiences. Parents, too, will feel the benefit during these financially difficult times."

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland and a leading member of the Free School Meals Campaign, said a national roll-out deserved support from the Scottish Parliament because it was a "massive step forward" for children's health and a boost to hard-pressed families.

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