Edinburgh faces £5.5m free school meals bill

The government is allocating �55m to cover its pledge to give free school dinners to all P1-3 pupils. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The government is allocating �55m to cover its pledge to give free school dinners to all P1-3 pupils. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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CITY schools are facing an annual bill of up to £5.5 million for delivering free school meals to all P1-3 pupils – enough to hire more than 260 new teachers.

School kitchens and dining halls will also have to be expanded to implement the flagship Scottish Government scheme, say education chiefs, who warn the cost of new work could reach “millions”.

They fear an allocation of £55m by ministers to deliver free meals to all P1-3 pupils across Scotland will not be enough and have called for clarity on how the policy will be funded.

Councillor Paul Godzik, education leader, said: “There may well be real practical issues with the implementation of the free school meals for P1-P3 in Edinburgh.

“We could have the scenario where around 16,000 primary school pupils could take up free school meals so we expect that a number of schools may require capital works to meet the increased demand.”

Delivering a free lunch to Edinburgh’s P1-3 youngsters will mean dishing up around 2.05 million extra school meals each year – or just over 10,800 every day.

Around 2230 children are currently eligible for a free school meal – at a cost of £1.15m to the city council – under existing criteria but this figure will rocket to more than 13,000 when the new initiative comes into force in January. The projected rise at large and popular schools is even more dramatic.

At South Morningside, fewer than five pupils in the first three year groups are eligible for a free meal, compared to an overall P1-3 roll of 278.

Although not every child will take up the offer, the policy’s overall cost if significant numbers accept is set to create a major new headache for 
education chiefs, who are considering how they will plug funding gaps running to tens of millions of pounds which have hit major projects to repair, upgrade and expand the most crowded and dilapidated 
classrooms.

At Westminster, government sources have indicated that delivering free meals may mean vital school maintenance budgets are raided to meet the pledge.

“The Scottish Government has indicated that the policy will be fully funded, however we await confirmation of the revenue and capital funding to be allocated,” said Cllr Godzik, adding that the issue had been “flagged” to ministers.

Bosses at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) – who have identified a £4m gap between the £6m they say ministers have allocated for capital investment and an estimated national outlay of £10m – also expressed concern.

A spokesman said: “All councils will probably face a cost in terms of capital – lots of schools just won’t have the facilities for this.”

But ministers said they were “committed” to ensuring every P1-3 pupil has the option of a free school meal and stressed the Scottish Government would spend £13m on funding the scheme in 2014-15 and a further £42m in 2015-16.

“We are working with Cosla to explore how any practical implications will be addressed,” a spokeswoman added.