The scottish Government's flagship free school meals pilot study over the next six months will last too short a time to measure health benefits, changes in behaviour and value for money, charities have warned MSPs.
And the health expert who evaluated the three-year free school meals initiative in Kingston upon Hull's primary schools which was scrapped this month because its pound;3.8 million annual cost was deemed unaffordable has warned that the Scottish study cannot hope to engage parents in such a short period.
Derek Colquhoun of Hull University told The TESS: "Apart from the fact that behaviour and attitude take time to change, schools have natural rhythms. We found an initial dip in uptake of school dinners in September, for instance, and then around Christmas demand rises. Similarly, kids have favourites, such as fish on a Friday, and that affects uptake. You need a year to get used to these sorts of things."
He added that parental engagement was crucial to changing children's eating habits. "We are unearthing evidence that if children take a packed lunch to school then they have a hot dinner at home," he said. "However, if a hot dinner is provided at school, parents allow kids to eat junk at home. It defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. And for that reason alone never mind issues of participation you need to get parents on board."
Professor Colquhoun said he would have been happy to share his experiences with the Scottish Government, if only someone had asked: "It's a shame your folk didn't talk to me or my team. We could have told them about what to do and what not to do."
Another unfortunate decision, he felt, was to start the pilot programme before the final report on the Hull study is published in January. "A cynic might say your study had been deliberately set up to fail because there isn't the political will to roll this out," he concluded.
However, Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, hinted that there was scope for the pilot to be extended after the comprehensive spending review. "Don't think of this study in isolation," she said. "We were constrained by the financial year. What it came down to was: do we do something this year or next year? So we decided, why not at least go ahead with something."
The warnings about the impact of the pound;5 million pilot study come on the eve of its roll-out next month for all P1-3 pupils in the Scottish Borders, East Ayrshire, Fife, Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire council areas.
The aims of the study, according to the Scottish Government, are to measure health benefits to pupils, changes in eating habits and views on school meals. Officials also want to look at practical issues such as dining hall capacity and cost.
Barnardo's Scotland, the Aberlour Child Care Trust and Children in Scotland raised a number of concerns about the six-month study when they gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament education committee last week.
Tam Baillie, assistant director of policy at Barnardo's Scotland, said: "It will need a pilot of longer than six months to measure adequately and appropriately any health benefits and to gauge the impact of the scheme."
Kelly Bayes, head of policy and communications at the Aberlour Child Care Trust, felt the Government should have waited for Hull University to publish its final report, "given all the lessons that could be learned from a three year pilot project". She also questioned whether free school meals for all was the most "cost effective" strategy, as opposed to extending eligibility which, she said, Aberlour favoured.
Children in Scotland, however, agreed with the Government's universal approach because it could "establish a firm foundation of common knowledge and shared experience that advances the public health agenda in relation to obesity, nutrition and food".
Scottish Government officials conceded that a longer trial would mean more robust information and that in just six months there would be no physiological changes for instance, changes in weight to measure. However, they maintained that they expect to collect "good information" on behavioural change, attitudinal change, and process and capacity issues for school canteens.
READY, STEADY, EAT
No sweets, no fizzy drinks and oily fish once every three weeks are some of the new nutritional rules Scottish schools will have to abide by from next year.
A group of nutrition, child health, dental and education experts drew up recommendations last year that set out exactly what they felt should be served in school canteens and vending machines.
The recommendations were considered by the previous administration but now new ministers have re-examined the group's proposals and made slight changes. Oven chips, for instance, could have been served every day of the week but will now count as fried food and therefore can only be served three times a week.
The new nutritional guidelines will apply from August 2008.