A THIRD of children in the first three years of school in parts of the Lothians have still not taken up their free meal entitlement.
The policy, which provides free school dinners for pupils in primary one, two and three, was introduced in January by the Scottish Government in a bid to provide a hot meal for every youngster and tackle “the scourge of child poverty” north of the Border.
It is said to be worth £330 a year for each eligible child.
Figures obtained from Scotland’s 32 councils found an increased number of children taking meals at school in most areas of the country since the service was brought in two months ago, lifting the overall take-up of the scheme to around 75 per cent.
However, some councils said they had expected uptake to be even higher, while figures varied widely across Scotland.
Midlothian had the highest uptake, with 87 per cent of eligible children now taking school meals.
In East Lothian, however, the figure is just 68 per cent. Neither Edinburgh nor West Lothian provided figures.
Barbara Schuler, policy manager at the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said that parents living in more deprived areas had been less likely to take up the free school meals as those living in more affluent parts.
“We are finding in some places that it is parents from the poorer areas who are not taking it up as much as those in more prosperous areas,” she said.
“It begs the question as to whether this is down to a communication problem, if schools and the Government are not getting their message out as well – both that this is happening and the nutritional value of what is on offer.”
Most children who do not eat meals at school have packed lunches provided by their parents, or go home for lunch. Lindsay Law, parent representative on the city council’s education committee, said she’d heard stories of fussy eaters refusing to take free school meals.
But she added: “I suppose it’s a parent’s choice – I think it’s simple as that.
“It has been quite well publicised so if children are not taking free school meals it’s because parents are not choosing to have them take free school meals.
“It’s possibly due to the quality of the meals– a perception that school dinners don’t offer the same quality and control that you have with a packed lunch.
“I’m surprised it’s as low as it is [in some areas]. It’s a good policy and it’s good for families. It saves a lot of money.
“But at the end of the day, if you’re the parent of a P1 child, a child who’s five or six years old, with a packed lunch you can look inside and see what children are actually eating [during the day].”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “It is heartening to see uptake increasing around Scotland in the first months of the universal offer.”