It is an audacious attempt to wipe out child hunger in one council area, and thought to be a UK first: as of April 2019, North Lanarkshire Council plans to deliver free meals for schoolchildren every day of the year, including weekends and Christmas Day.
This summer – having piloted the scheme over the Easter holidays at four venues – the council is taking the next step towards that goal, by offering a holiday club that includes a free meal at nine venues in Coatbridge, Bellshill and Wishaw.
Early figures show that this expansion of the scheme, called Club 365, has resulted in participation more than doubling since Easter and that attendance has also increased at the original four clubs by around 20 per cent.
Tes Scotland is the only media outlet to be given access to the scheme to date, and at the first venue we visit, we meet P7 pupil James*, who attends one of the Coatbridge clubs.
James went along to the Easter holiday club every day and has been attending the summer club since the long break started. He is often there an hour or more early, usually turning up between 10.15am and 10.45am, even though the scheme does not officially start until 11.30am.
The activities at the clubs in Coatbridge are run by the council’s Active Schools team. Coordinator Carrie McCoy says: “For [James], it is making a difference. He has somewhere to go and adults who know where he is to give him a bit of security, and he’s getting fed at least one meal a day.”
James’ behaviour is challenging but manageable – he has been known to try to access the computers behind the reception desk, and other children can find him “overbearing”, says Alan Henry, the education officer responsible for Club 365. James struggles to make eye contact and is in constant motion. He sees us, with our air of officialdom, and asks Henry if he is “polis” and Club 365 coordinator Michelle Kane if she’s a social worker.
We meet more children like James at the next venue. Callum*, a young primary pupil, has holes in his shoes, and one staff member describes him as “dishevelled” – he is the kind of child that Club 365 is designed to help.
Isabelle Boyd, the council’s assistant chief executive responsible for education, and a former secondary headteacher, is in no doubt that there is a very real need for this service.
“When I was visiting a hub during Easter, there was a child aged about 7 who asked every 10 minutes, ‘When is lunch?’ That child was actually hungry. In 2018 in Scotland, that’s a disgrace.”
Clubs 'are about more than just food'
The clubs are not just about food though, she says. “The children do rock climbing and have pyjama parties. It’s not a soup kitchen, it’s a holiday club, and when they are there they have their lunch.”
During the Easter break, the clubs ran for three hours but that has been cut to two hours over the summer.
It is not about the money, says Henry. If the children attend for more than two hours, the provision becomes classed as childcare and the scheme then falls under the auspices of the Care Inspectorate. That would mean jumping through a lot more hoops, and the capacity is not there.
However, Professor Greta Defeyter, an expert in breakfast clubs and “holiday provision”, believes that the optimum period to make an impact is four hours. Her team does not talk about “holiday hunger”, she explains, but rather provision. Because when it comes to mitigating against the dip in attainment after the summer break, which is particularly pronounced among disadvantaged pupils, a multifaceted approach is best. The children need nutritious food but also to be active and stimulated, she says.
Nevertheless, she describes the team at North Lanarkshire Council as “pioneers” and Club 365 as “fantastic”.
The cost of the scheme in four venues in Coatbridge over Easter was £22,000 – more expensive than planned. The original vision was to serve a basic lunch but, on the advice of anti-poverty campaigners, the council opted for a hot meal. This meant that food costs rose from £1.50 to £3.50 per child.
If the children do not like the hot meal, there is the option of a sandwich. If there is food left over, the children take it home, providing it is safe to do so; meals are colour-coded so staff know which foods can be reheated.
Club 365 runs in community centres in the main, but in Bellshill it is hosted by charity the YMCA in a mix of council and charity premises. Schools are off limits. Boyd says: “We wanted to make it quite clear that this wasn’t about going to school on a Saturday and Sunday or in the school holidays. It had to be something different.”
However, while schools might not host Club 365, Boyd says they will reap the benefits. She continues: “Some of our children live in chaotic households where there is a lack of routine, and multiple deprivation in the truest sense; so, families struggling financially but also suffering from mental health problems or substance misuse problems or alcohol problems.
“There might be a house full of adults and a lot of stuff going on, but none of it is about the kids. Club 365 is about trying to mitigate the impact of poverty and holiday hunger but it’s also about learning loss [during breaks from school].”
On average, during the first full week of the summer break, from Monday to Friday, a total of 130 children attended the nine Club 365 venues daily, but the numbers fluctuate, with a marked drop-off at the weekend. An average of 80 children attend on a Saturday or Sunday.
Overall, there are 3,752 primary children entitled to free meals in North Lanarkshire; the council expects 15-20 per cent to access Club 365. But now that all children in P1-P3 are entitled to free meals, there is the issue of making sure that those who need the service most are the ones accessing it. Mothers dressed in gym gear, driving Range Rovers and treating Club 365 as childcare was not the vision, but it has happened, says Boyd. “This intervention is targeted at children entitled to free school meals. But we had families who used it for a different purpose,” she adds.
Clubs in town centres tend to be less busy than those on estates with a concentrated population, says Henry. The food on offer also influences attendance, he explains. It was pizza and wedges yesterday and that drew a crowd, but spaghetti bolognese did not. Mark McGuinness, an Active Schools coach who helps to deliver Club 365 at the Coatbridge Community Centre, talks of an outcry when salmon fish fingers were served. In the end, they rubbed out the word “salmon” on the menu and there were no more complaints.
Boyd says the council has set aside £1.5 million for Club 365 in this financial year but she does not expect to spend that amount, given that the Scottish government – through the money set aside for the Attainment Challenge – has agreed to fund the activities on offer at the clubs up to a maximum of £414,000.
The crucial question for headteachers, when schools open again in August, will be, “Who did not go?”, says Boyd.
“Sometimes those in greatest need are also those furthest away from filling in a form, despite the best efforts of heads and community workers,” she adds.
It is clear, though, that the scheme has huge potential, not least as a means for other council services to engage with families. Oral hygiene experts have already visited the Coatbridge venues to talk about brushing teeth, and they believe that, if the scheme continues, it could “transform” the area’s oral health record (see box, above).
But filling bellies remains the main aim, as well as giving all children the experience of carefree summer days playing with friends.
Boyd explains: “When these kids come back after the summer and the teacher says, ‘Write about what you did during the holidays’, they will have loads of things to say. Previously, that probably would not have been the case.”
*Names have been changed