'Bitter blow' to free meals

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
Campaigners angry as TESS survey reveals just one council will cater for all P1-3 pupils

Only one local authority plans to deliver the Scottish Government's pledge to introduce free school meals for P1-3 pupils in August.

A survey conducted by The TESS has revealed that West Dunbartonshire Council will be on its own.

Child poverty campaigners have described the failure of the Government and local authorities to deliver free meals as "a bitter blow to tens of thousands of families across Scotland".

With the exception of West Dunbartonshire, Scottish councils have chosen to take advantage of the "flexibility" offered by the Government, following the financial downturn. This allows them to concentrate on delivering smaller class sizes at the expense of free meals.

But Education Secretary Michael Russell has made clear that the Government still wants to see "year-on-year progress" in relation to free meals.

Ten out of the 32 councils have no plans to expand free school meals in any way, The TESS has discovered.

A further four have not decided what they will provide. And the remainder plan to introduce a wide array of models.

Ten councils said they would supply a free lunch, while seven opted to provide only a free breakfast. Usually, schools serving deprived areas have been earmarked to benefit, although some authorities plan to supply meals for all P1 pupils.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are among those councils with no plans to change their current provision. They argued that they were already meeting the Government's requirements by reaching children in the 20 per cent most deprived communities.

However, this was not a target but "a suggestion" as to how councils could make progress, Mr Russell told The TESS.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Councils are also free, if they wish, to implement an alternative targeting scheme of equal extent.

"Joint discussions will now take place with every council to establish how to achieve this agreed commitment in a realistic and sustainable way."

Other authorities making no change to their provision include: Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, Fife, Highland, Midlothian, North Lanarkshire, Orkney and Shetland.

A Midlothian Council spokeswoman said: "Owing to limited availability of funds, it has been decided that eligibility for free school meals will not be extended beyond what is required under statute."

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, described the councils' approach as "a bitter blow".

He added: "Ensuring children have one healthy meal in the middle of the day can play a vital role in their health and education, and it can free up resources for families in difficult circumstances."

emma.seith@tes.co.uk.

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