Free school meals for P1-3s

Posted on 07/01/2014 by

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Families and young people across Scotland will benefit from millions of pounds of additional support after First Minister Alex Salmond announced a significant expansion of free school meals and childcare provision this afternoon.

As part of a £114 million package for young people over two years, every one of Scotland’s P1 to P3 children will have the option of a free meal in school from January next year, improving health and wellbeing, increasing attainment and saving families at least £330 a year for each child.

Speaking during a parliamentary debate on poverty and the early years, Mr Salmond also announced that free childcare provision would be expanded to every two year-old from a workless household in Scotland – around 8,400 children or 15 per cent of all two year-olds – by August this year.

And by August next year, free childcare provision would be extended further, reaching 15,400 children – 27 per cent of all two year-olds – by widening entitlement to families that received certain welfare benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance.

The First Minister said the extension to childcare provision would ensure that, by August 2015, Scotland will deliver 80 million hours of childcare to pre-school children – the greatest amount in the UK and 6.5 per cent more than if Scotland followed Westminster’s approach in England.

But he warned that, only with independence could a truly transformational shift in childcare be funded, because the economic gains and revenues generated by such a policy will go to a Scottish exchequer and not the London Treasury.

The First Minister said: “The announcements that we are making today will have the greatest possible effect, given the limited resources available to us.

“Under this government, Scotland has made free meals available in primary school to families which receive child and working tax credits – a step which hasn’t been taken in England and Wales, and which contributed to 10,000 more pupils registering for free school meals.

“Now, we can go further. I can announce today that – after discussions with our partners in local government – we will fund free school meals for all school children in primary 1 to primary 3 from next January.

“This measure will build on, and learn from, the pilots we established in five local authority areas in 2007 and 2008. It will remove any possibility of free meals being a source of stigma during the first years of a child’s schooling; it will improve health and wellbeing; and it will be worth at least £330 a year for each child to families across the country.

“The measure has been supported by a powerful alliance of campaigners against child poverty, including Child Poverty Action Group Scotland, Children in Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland, the Church of Scotland and trade unions.”

Mr Salmond continued: “However we also have a determination to transform childcare. We have promised that in the first budget of an independent Scotland, we would make 600 hours of free childcare available to approximately 50 per cent of two year olds. This can be funded through choices which are only available with independence – such as ending funding for the Trident missile system.

“By the end of the first parliament, we would almost double childcare provision to 1,140 hours each year for all three and four year olds, and all vulnerable two year olds. In the longer term, we would make those levels of care available to all children from the age of one.

“The transformational change in the first parliament would improve care and learning for young children, boost economic growth, and remove a major barrier to work for many parents, especially women.

“Under devolution, even after the Scotland Act, this revenue goes to Westminster. With independence, it stays in Scotland. This Government’s ambitions for childcare involve transforming the structure of our economy and the nature of our society. They cannot be sustainably funded through a declining budget fixed at Westminster.

“I can announce today that we will increase the number of two year olds – currently 3 per cent of the total – who will benefit from free learning and care.

“We will begin by focussing on those families most in need. From this August, the entitlement will cover two year olds in families which are seeking work – approximately 15 per cent of the total. This will give parents additional support when they are looking for employment, and will maintain that support when they are successful.

“In August next year, we will expand provision further, for all children who would meet the current criteria for free school meals. That means that around 27 per cent of two year-olds will be covered – more than 15,000 children.

“By August 2015, the overall level of free learning and care being delivered for two, three and four year olds in Scotland, will exceed that which is promised elsewhere in the UK. As we all know, recent revelations suggest that more around one third of the current childcare promise in England is not being delivered due to a lack of preparation and capacity. In Scotland, we will both prepare and deliver.”

The Scottish Government’s decision to follow the free school meal initiative adopted by Westminster has been welcomed north of the border.

GMB Scotland is the largest union for catering staff across Scotland’s 32 Local authorities, and Alex McLuckie, the union’s senior organiser for the public sector in Scotland, said: “There is so much good in this announcement. It will help tackle poverty and social exclusion and help remove the stigma some attach to free school meals.

“This announcement will be well received by our members who currently provide healthy meals for pupils. It is a pleasant change to see money being invested in the service rather than bearing the brunt of the cut backs in budgets.”

The Scottish Greens say the school meals initiative also offers an opportunity to boost local economies.

Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for Lothian and food spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, welcomed plans for free school meals for P1-3 children but urged Scottish ministers to ensure the roll-out benefits local economies.

Research last summer by Alison Johnstone revealed that the chicken served in school meals in six of Scotland’s seven cities is not Scottish, but is instead imported from as far away as Thailand.

Alison Johnstone, a member of Holyrood’s economy committee, said: “Rolling out free school meals is a welcome, common sense move but ministers must also address what is being served up to our children. Our councils need support to make buying choices which have positive impacts for local farmers and producers. I will continue to put pressure on ministers so that they do not waste this golden opportunity.”

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