The free school meals policy for P1-3s is dragging teachers away from the classroom and may “compromise” children’s learning, an analysis from NHS Health Scotland has found.
While researchers declare it a success overall, they have encountered “chaotic” scenes in dining halls and there are fears that schools will struggle to make the policy work as support staff are targeted by budget cuts.
Headteachers, meanwhile, are frustrated that families who can afford to pay for meals are benefiting when the money could be used to protect other budgets.
The policy was introduced in January 2015, but uptake has varied markedly in different schools and council officials have expressed concerns that some headteachers are not throwing their weight behind it.
‘Chaotic’ start to year
NHS Health Scotland analysed three local authorities and 10 schools. Researcher Dr Rachel McAdams said implementation had been “successful [and] straightforward”, but efforts should be made to increase uptake, especially among poorer families.
However, school leaders reported that extra traffic in dining halls had arrived just as support staff were being cut, resulting in a “chaotic” start to the year in at least one school.
Schools responded by asking senior managers and class teachers to provide extra supervision during lunchtimes, at a time when teaching unions are complaining that their members are facing unprecedented workload. “I really rely on P1 teachers hanging back, so that’s 15 minutes of their lunch,” said one manager.
In each local authority, concern was expressed about the teaching time spent on administration of pupils’ lunch choices.
The majority of teachers and cooks support the policy in principle, but most senior school managers – and some teachers – said that they were frustrated that the money could be better spent elsewhere. They also “feared that learning was being compromised due to cutbacks” and “argued that schools’ primary business was in teaching and learning, not food provision”, the report said.
‘Huge variations in support’
“I thought it was a bit ridiculous because we don’t have money for a lot of things at the moment...I can think of much better things to spend my money on, ie, staff to teach pupils,” said one senior manager.
One council catering official complained of “huge variations” in the support of headteachers and a “complete lack of cooperation”. They said: “They find it time-consuming: they see no worth in it, so therefore they fail to buy into it and support us in trying to maximise the numbers.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that there had “clearly been some operational challenges for some schools”. But free meals brings “real benefits for pupils’ health, can aid concentration during the long school day and support their ability to reach their full potential as learners”.
He would ultimately like to see free school meals for all, a view echoed by Iain Ellis, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland. Mr Ellis felt that schools, as well as national and local government, could do more to promote the existing policy.
A Scottish government spokesperson said that the universal free school meals policy was “helping to ensure that every child gets the best possible start”.
The spokesperson added: “Local authorities and Cosla [the umbrella organisation that represents councils] have agreed to implement this policy fully but we appreciate that they need to take local circumstances and needs into account in doing so.”
‘Children just can’t use cutlery’
of young children taking meals has presented schools with several headaches. One school manager said: “The biggest issue for me is that children have not been taught how to use knives and forks at home, and we’re going to have to do something on that because they just can’t use cutlery.” Catering staff say that children are often flummoxed when faced with multiple options, while a coloured-token system designed to speed up traffic can have the opposite effect.
Some school managers and teachers say younger children are “becoming upset” when they make mistakes, with one manager accusing kitchen staff of being “very rude” to children. There are also concerns that the policy, designed to ensure children get hot, nutritious meals, has been undermined by “McDonaldised” packed lunches, or that children are throwing away fruit and only showing up for less healthy meals, such as pizza.