The policy where the proof is in the pudding

31st October 2014 at 00:00
Free school meals for all P1-3 pupils sounds like a great idea - until you wonder who will cook and serve them. ?Henry Hepburn investigates how prepared Scotland is for the dinner bell

Free school meals for all? It's one of those policies that sounds eminently sensible but has people tearing their hair out behind the scenes. How will you fit all the children in? Are there enough staff? Will the queues snaking around the canteen force you to make timetable changes? Who's paying for it all? Is it even going to be worth all the effort?

The wisdom of the Scottish government's free school meals policy for P1-3 pupils - to be applied universally soon after Christmas - has already caused plenty of debate. Now, however, the talk has subsided and local authorities are in the final stretch of preparing for a logistical challenge with few parallels in Scottish education.

Investigations by TESS suggest that local authorities are predicting that anything from 75 to 95 per cent of P1-3s will take up free meals. This is a huge change: according to the government's 2014 Healthy Living Survey, only 20.6 per cent of primary pupils - 77,791 in total - are currently registered to receive free school meals, with 88.7 per cent of those pupils taking them up on the day of the survey.

Calling for the bill

TESS asked all 32 councils how well prepared they were to implement the policy and what was causing the biggest headaches. Most insisted they would meet demand come what may - even if it was hard to anticipate exactly how many children would burst through dining room doors in January. Some problems were common to all the authorities, however.

"Up and down the country there are situations where there is not enough space and not a great deal of opportunity to create extra space," says Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland.

Several authorities told TESS they were still in the dark about how much funding the Scottish government would be providing for capital projects such as refurbishments or extensions. These include Argyll and Bute, East Lothian, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Highland and North Lanarkshire. According to Dempster, this uncertainty is putting them "in a very difficult place".

With schools working on the basis that the vast majority of children will take the meals, refurbishments and building work may be common requirements. Aberdeenshire is a case in point: 61 of the council's 150 primaries will have to refurbish kitchens or serving areas. For some authorities, the bill for capital costs could reach seven figures.

According to the government, however, in September it agreed capital funding with local authorities body Cosla of pound;24.8 million for 2014-15, which will add up to pound;70.5 million of revenue funding over two years. "We are clear that reasonable capital costs associated with this policy will be met," a government spokesman says.

Renfrewshire is most candid about the funding uncertainty: it is "monitoring costs carefully and will quickly be in discussion with the Scottish government if it proves inadequate", a spokesperson says. The council's biggest challenge is getting all the children fed in time and officials are concerned that lunch periods will spill over into class time. Renfrewshire is not alone in this fear.

Dozens of extra staff, mainly in catering, will have to be found by some councils to cope with demand. Aberdeenshire is recruiting an extra 60, Highland needs 64 part-time staff and Fife will need to fill 25 full-time posts. Even a small council like East Renfrewshire, with 23 primary schools, has calculated that it needs 27 extra full-time staff.

Country cooking

The most onerous demands are often on rural authorities. Many of Highland's 180 primaries are small, remote schools. Some have little space to prepare or serve food and 11 do not provide meals at all.

Traditionally, families have been paid to prepare meals at home, but the council has been looking at bringing in meals from elsewhere. Highland has also mooted asking older pupils and family members to serve food in some schools. Similarly, Argyll and Bute has two small schools on the islands of Iona and Ulva which have no kitchens and where parents will be reimbursed for providing meals.

Earlier this year, Andrew Kennedy, East Ayrshire Council's head of facilities management, said that pilots of free school meals projects had shown that councils should reduce the number of menu options and consider timetable changes.

Barbara Schuler, policy manager for the National Parent Forum of Scotland, reveals that local representatives have been reporting concerns over whether pupils will have time to eat their meal and whether the pressure on staff to rush will affect the quality of meals.

Interestingly, however, one parent forum representative suggested that such difficulties would recede over time, with the local authority expecting between 20 and 30 per cent of children to revert to a packed lunch after the novelty of the free meal wore off.

There seems little doubt that delivery of free meals for all P1-3s is going to cause problems, the only questions being to what extent and at what financial cost. But schools and councils should look beyond this potential disruption, believes Dr John McKendrick, a poverty expert at Glasgow Caledonian University. His rationale is simple: free school meals will protect many children from UK government policies that hit the poorest the hardest.

As the disposable income of the poorest families falls and welfare payments are cut, free meals become more important in shielding children from the damaging effects of poverty, McKendrick argues. "Universal provision also makes it less likely that there will be any scaling back of provision for the most vulnerable," he says. "Historical evidence tends to show that in tougher times, people's attitudes toward social provision harden."

With austerity measures looming across the UK for the foreseeable future, McKendrick believes free school meals may become "increasingly important in the years ahead".

Turning primary meals into a `dining experience'

Not so long ago, people talked about a "dining experience" only in reference to Michelin-starred gastronomic extravaganzas. Now it is a standard term in council reports about school dinners.

Earlier this month, a Glasgow document on food policy (see bit.lyGlasgowFood) led elected members through the changing nature of school meals. Those of them whose last canteen experience was several decades ago may have been taken aback.

People of a certain age will recall joyless queues and the dash to throw processed gloop hastily down their throats in order to avoid the bullies who prowled the dining halls with impunity. Now, however, the first priority of The Dining Experience - the report's capital letters - is to encourage "positive social interaction".

The report calls on schools to replace tired dining room furniture that prevents pupils from socialising with their friends. The plastic cutlery of primary school dining rooms is also a no-no. Glasgow's school meals contractor Cordia has - and here the report sounds more like a John Lewis catalogue - tried "a new range of tableware" in one primary. Pupils helped to choose cutlery and crockery to match their school colours.

In a trial project at Caledonia Primary School (pictured below), each class took turns to start lunch 15 minutes earlier than usual and teachers ate with them. Good manners, healthy food and exercise were the conversational topics batted across the lunch table. It was such a success that the school made this a permanent arrangement.

Earlier this year at a children's food conference in Glasgow, the Scottish government's main man for public sector food, Robin Gourlay, underlined the national support for such initiatives. Trials had shown the benefits of setting tables with cutlery, napkins and bread, helping "the wee ones settle and feel welcomed", he said.

Gourlay recalled, too, that previous experiments with free school meals had led to pupils serving food - an idea that Highland Council is keen on when the P1-3 policy kicks in from January. The National Parent Forum of Scotland told TESS at the time that giving pupils responsibility helped them to make friends and understand nutrition and hygiene.

The Glasgow report is careful to strike a note of realism against fanciful thoughts that elegant fine dining can in any way be replicated.

"Dining rooms can be noisy and busy," it notes with admirable understatement. "We recognise that it can sometimes be a challenge to provide a fully pleasant eating environment when there are a large number of children requiring to be fed."

Some things will never change: when several hundred young stomachs start to grumble, the vibe is likely to be more raucous than Ritz-like.

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