Last week, first minister Nicola Sturgeon met celebrity chef and healthy school meals campaigner Jamie Oliver, and together they announced a new goal to halve child obesity rates by 2030. But a Tes Scotland investigation has revealed that the food served in Scottish schools is already failing to meet strict nutritional standards set by the government.
When scrutinised by Education Scotland’s health and nutrition inspectors, school food has been shown to be below standard more than half the time. Since 2012, in the 340 inspections that have also examined food quality – from snacks in tuck shops to hot lunches – nutritional standards have not been met in 172 cases.
The situation is worse in the secondary sector. While primary schools are failing to meet the standard almost 40 cent of the time, the figure for secondaries is over 70 per cent, with 79 out of 109 schools falling short.
Only eight special schools had their food inspected between 2012 and 17 April this year, and six did not meet the standard.
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray describes the figures – uncovered through a freedom of information request – as “atrocious”, but says they are perhaps unsurprising given the “constant squeezing of school budgets”.
Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith says the findings are of “great concern” and that Scotland has “little chance of narrowing the attainment gap” without first addressing the quality of school meals.
Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer says school dinners may be the only proper meal some children get, and failing to meet nutritional standards is “unacceptable”.
The revelations come at a time when the government is reviewing nutritional standards for school food and drink. A short-life working group reported on possible improvements in 2017, while a public consultation on the issue is expected to be published imminently.
Earlier this month, John Swinney scored Scottish school meals as seven or eight out of 10 when confronted by a dissatisfied parent on a BBC Radio Scotland phone-in.
Wendy Wills, who recently published research into the dining experience in seven Scottish secondaries, agrees that the education secretary’s rating is about right – but adds that many school lunches would only achieve a five or a six out of 10.
Wills, professor of food and public health at the University of Hertfordshire, believes nutritional standards for Scottish school meals do not need to change – but the food being served does. Scottish pupils are receiving conflicting messages about healthy eating, she adds. On the one hand, they are being told that pizza is bad for them, but on the other, it is being served to them in school.
Education Scotland plans to carry out 91 health and nutrition inspections in schools this academic year. It argues that the reasons for school food failing to make the grade are “wide and varied”.
The inspection body says tuck shops sometimes sell cereal bars that are not permitted, vending machines contain crisps that do not meet nutritional standards and lunch menus are failing to provide healthy dishes, such as oily fish, as frequently as required.
A spokesman adds: “The majority of reasons are minor and can easily be rectified when brought to the attention of the school or catering provider.”
However, in the 10 most recent inspections of nutritional standards at the time of Tes Scotland’s freedom of information request, the quality of school food made it into the summary of findings report on four occasions – something that only happens when there are “more major concerns around compliance”, according to Education Scotland.
For example, the inspection report of St Ninian’s High in East Dunbartonshire, published in March, says “the local authority catering provider was not able to demonstrate that all aspects of the nutritional regulations are being met”.
Thomas Glen, East Dunbartonshire Council’s depute chief executive for place, neighbourhood and corporate assets, says there are “many positives” in the school’s report – such as the good quality of food and popularity of hot meals – but that action has been taken to improve other areas.
The inspection report of Tynecastle High in Edinburgh, also published in March, says the school still has work to do “to ensure full compliance with the Health Promotion and Nutrition Act”. It adds that clearer information is also needed about the food available “to ensure dietary needs based on religious beliefs are met”.
The catering company that supplies Tynecastle High operates in six secondaries and two primaries in the city. A spokesman for City of Edinburgh Council says the caterer is attempting to rectify the points raised, and is working with the school and council to “enhance the dining experience and ensure compliance of stringent nutritional guidance”.
Keith Breasley, national chair of Assist FM, which represents local authority caterers, says the majority work within nutritional guidelines and have been doing so since these were introduced a decade ago. But he is calling for a minimum cost for a school meal to be established, “to help caterers meet nutritional requirements”.
He says: “Obviously it is easier to provide a meal that meets the government’s aspirations if a reasonable budget is available.”
A Scottish government spokesman says: “All local authorities have a duty to provide school meals that meet strict nutritional requirements, ensuring pupils are offered balanced and nutritious school lunches. Where issues are identified, health and nutrition inspectors work with schools and local authorities to address any concerns.
“We are committed to ensuring school meals meet nutritional standards, given the proven benefits this provides for pupils’ learning, as well as current and future health.
“School meals are healthier, tastier and more popular than ever, with schools serving over 50 million meals per year and uptake increasing, demonstrating that more children are now choosing to take a school meal.”