Gina Davidson: Chips are down in meals policy

A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't always work. Picture: Donald MacLeod
A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't always work. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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WELL, knock me down with a feather from my flirting fan but I’m just not being “wooed” by Alex Salmond’s latest “policies for women”.

The Scottish Government’s new plan for free school meals for all kids in primary one to three and nursery places for two-year-olds in the most deprived areas of Scotland is failing to be attractive enough.

For one thing, who decided that these policies are vote winners for women only? Men do have children, too. And the idea that all it will take to turn a woman’s pretty little head and win her heart is a kid-friendly plan is utterly naive.

All that aside, though, while I think extending childcare for the poorest is the right step to take and should be expanded further, on universal free school meals I’m not so sure.

I don’t blame the SNP for introducing it, given that it’s happening down south and it won’t want Scottish kids to be left out, but it’s an idea that I’ve felt uncomfortable with since it was first announced by the coalition government in Westminster (though it’s noticeable the word “hot” has been dropped from the rhetoric given a lack of school kitchens).

It sounds great – free, nutritious food to ensure children all get a 
decent meal every day and can therefore concentrate properly at school. But on closer inspection expanding free school meals provision seems mostly to benefit the more well-off in society in the same way as the ongoing council tax freeze.

It would be great if we could afford to give all primary pupils free meals, but quite rightly given limited public monies, they have been awarded to the poorest in society, those where families are struggling on benefits and more recently those on low pay and in receipt of child tax credit and working tax credit.

At the moment in Edinburgh there are 5144 primary pupils who qualify for a free school meal. In the infant primary years that’s 2011, or 15.4 per cent of the pupils.

Yet only 4186 pupils who qualify in primary schools actually take up the opportunity of a free lunch. Is this because of a stigma attached? Certainly that was the case in the past but these days the schemes are run anonymously so pupils should never know who pays and who doesn’t. Why the uptake is not 100 per cent is mysterious.

Even more so when a government pilot of extending free school meals in 2007 showed that only a further four per cent of those who already qualified for the lunches began to actually eat them. On the other hand the figure for those who normally had to pay, but through the pilot could get them for free, rose by 28 per cent.

So it seems that even if all kids are offered free meals, not all will take them – and counter-intuitively the poorest are the least likely to do so.

Why then go ahead with this proposal? Why not compose a whole new school meals policy? One which raises the bar on the food offered or expands the regulations so those struggling on low pay – but not able to qualify for benefits – can be helped all the way through the primary years, even if it involves means-testing?

A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always fit. Not even with chips.

They couldn’t handle the Ruth

AS a child, Sunday mornings were spent at Burdiehouse Parish Church under the watchful eye of Reverend Hastie, though in Sunday School Mrs Crombie ruled the roost. So it will be fascinating to watch the current minister – the church is now Kaimes Lockhart Memorial – David Rankin and his hip-hop loving wife, Ruth, in the BBC series The Minister’s Wife (though I’m not sure Mrs Crombie would approve).

Pay rise not too bad

CITY councillors are to get their first pay rise in five years – cue moans and groans about whether they are worth being paid anything at all. While that reaction is in part understandable, the rise is a puny two per cent, and is in line with what council staff will receive after years of frozen salaries.

Of course, any pay rise is going to be controversial but let’s be thankful they’re not having an 11 per cent hike thrust upon them by an independent pay body like our glorious MPs, who seem incapable of being able to refuse such a grand gesture.

But still, the basic councillor salary will rise from just £16,234 to £16,560. A grand total of £326 a week before tax. Which might just cover the cost of a few tram trips.

Riding into road cycling stooshie

THE cycling battle has moved to new ground for the new year. Haymarket problems rumble on but now the focus is on Easter Road thanks to a spat between MSPs Kezia Dugdale, above, who believes the road is too dangerous for cyclists, and Transport Minister Keith Brown, who appears to need just the word of a single civil servant to pronounce it safe.

I hope Mr Brown is the kind of politician who likes a challenge and we’ll see his bahookie on a bike seat sometime soon as he weaves between parked cars, islands, roadworks and, of course, rush-hour traffic.

Remember your helmet, minister.

RANKING TAKES OFF

Chaos at Edinburgh Airport as the bomb scare sparked a mass evacuation of the terminal. But I bet it got the airport’s Twitter ranking shooting up from 15th position in last year’s chart.