North Lanarkshire plans to cure ‘holiday hunger’

2nd March 2018 at 00:00
Policy to provide meals for poor children year-round could also boost attainment

One of Scotland’s biggest councils, North Lanarkshire, has been garnering publicity for its bold aim of providing meals to poor children 365 days a year. But what is the council taking on – and how much of a difference is it likely to make?

What exactly is North Lanarkshire proposing?

It has agreed to a pilot project providing free meals on the 175 days each year when pupils are not at school – weekends and school holidays – to address “holiday hunger”.

If successful, this could be rolled out across the entire local authority in time for the summer holidays. It is believed that no other UK local authority has attempted such a scheme.

Why does North Lanarkshire say it’s needed?

Education convener Frank McNally says food banks are struggling to cope with demand. North Lanarkshire has some of Scotland’s most-deprived communities, with more than a fifth of children living in low-income households.

It adds that a 2017 report by the NUT teaching union in England found that 80 per cent of teachers noted a rise in “holiday hunger”, where children return from holidays suffering from poor nutrition.

Does it mean that poor pupils will be attending school during the holidays and at the weekend?

No. A total of 23 “hubs” – roughly one per secondary-school area – would be set up in community facilities rather than schools.

North Lanarkshire says the cost of opening schools, particularly at weekends, would be prohibitive – and attending school on a weekend or a holiday would be “stigmatising” for pupils and families.

How big an undertaking is it?

The pilot in Coatbridge during the spring break will cost around £11,000. The council estimates a starting annual cost of £414,000 for a 365-day programme. A smaller programme, covering only weekday holidays, would be £118,000.

Every pupil from P1-S3 would be issued with a “365 club card” confirming their entitlement to free meals. This covers 16,285 pupils, of which 6,182 are entitled to free school meals because their families receive benefits. Others are entitled because of the national policy of providing free school meals to all P1-3 children.

Have any potential pitfalls been identified?

John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group welcomed the plan, but said that the programme must be delivered sensitively in order to avoid stigma.

He added that it was “really important” that free meals are part of a wider package of holiday activities which are also open to families that pay for school meals.

Conservative Party education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the idea was “noble” but “undoubtedly expensive”, adding: “Hopefully the council has carefully considered all its options and explained to parents how it will be paying for this service.”

Will another service be cut to pay for this scheme?

The council told Tes Scotland that it was not as simple as taking from one pot of money to give to another – and that no other service would suffer as a result of this project.

North Lanarkshire, which set its annual budget last Friday, has had to make extensive savings, like all Scottish local authorities.

What is the impact of ‘holiday hunger’?

Many Scottish pupils start the autumn term nearly five weeks behind where they were before the summer holidays – according to Northumbria University research, reported in 2017 by Tes Scotland (“Holiday hunger leads to five-week learning lag”, 12 June).

This was similar to the reversal previously identified in US studies. Lead researcher Professor Greta Defeyter, an expert on school breakfast clubs and holiday hunger, said the attainment gap between rich and poor “could actually be driven by the summer period”.

What did it say about summer education and food schemes?

Professor Defeyter, who surveyed 428 organisations that provided food to children during school holidays, said summer schemes tended to “piecemeal” and unregulated, which minimised the benefits.

She added that they often focused too heavily on educational activities, when simply getting children to eat might be more important.

As well as stopping children going hungry, could such programmes boost attainment?

Professor Defeyter found that summer education and food schemes helped to boost reading scores and stop body-mass index levels increasing, although spelling did not see the same uplift.

A 2016 Education Endowment Foundation study involving 86,000 pupils in 106 primary schools found that breakfast clubs could boost children’s reading, writing and maths results – regardless of whether the children there ate breakfast.

Are children going hungry in other parts of Scotland?

Research by the EIS teaching union in 2017 found that more than half of survey respondents reported an increase in children coming to school without playpieces, snacks or money for the tuck shop. Almost a quarter saw a rising number of children going to breakfast clubs and more than 10 per cent said that a greater number of families were requesting food bank referrals.

Is anywhere else trying something similar to North Lanarkshire?

Two days after the North Lanarkshire plan got the go-ahead, Scotland’s biggest council, Glasgow, decided to extend free school meals by a year so that all P1-4s are entitled, and pledged £2 million to tackling holiday hunger.

@Henry_Hepburn

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