Spend to save policy makes sense

17th October 2008 at 01:00

There are many rehearsed nutritional and educational benefits to be had from providing free school meals in P1-3 throughout Scotland, as the Government proposes.

Both Sweden and Finland have had a free meals policy since the 1940s (pictured) and 1970s respectively. Educationists in these countries cite the importance of a nutritious lunch in improving children's concentration and ability to learn. Of course, the real prize to be had from what is a significant investment lies in the potential long-term benefit to the health of our nation - and in reduced costs for the health service.

While this policy will be delivered in schools, its focus is on health and nutrition. With that in mind, the cost should not be managed by squeezing education budgets.

Another example of a "spend to save" policy is in nursery education. Research is often cited to suggest that, for every pound spent in the early years, the state saves (up to) Pounds 17 over a lifetime. If this is even partially true, it is the best possible financial argument for investment in the early years.

Large-scale longitudinal research from south of the border tells us that high-quality pre-school settings result in better cognitive and behavioural outcomes. The researchers define high-quality settings as those which are staffed by teachers and a headteacher.

This was the foundation of the Government's commitment to provide access to a teacher for all nursery-age children. Since the signing of the concordat with local councils, the Government has been reluctant to define what access means and has left it to individual local authorities.

While the Government has declined to pass judgment, I cannot believe that it had in mind the approach proposed in Renfrewshire where the authority plans to close all six nursery schools and distribute the teachers around 20 or so establishments in a peripatetic model.

If Scotland is to realise the benefits for pupils of having "access" to a nursery teacher, we should be looking to level up provision not spread the jam so thinly it can't be tasted.

Greg Dempster, general secretary, Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland.

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