Ian Swanson: Coalition policy is food for thought

Pictures: PA
Pictures: PA
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FREE school meals were promised for all P1-P3 pupils in the Scottish National Party manifesto at the 2007 election. And when the SNP formed a minority government it introduced a pilot scheme in certain areas. But the roll-out of the 
policy has never been completed.

At one stage, councils were allowed to slow down the introduction of free meals in return for speeding up reductions in class sizes.

Now Alex Salmond’s administration faces the possibility of being upstaged by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster, which has announced all children south of the Border will get free school meals in their first three years at primary from next September.

For a government which prides itself on introducing free university tuition, free prescription charges and free bridge tolls, adding to free care for the elderly and free bus passes, it would be extremely embarrassing, to say the least, if a Tory-led administration in London associated with austerity was seen to be adopting a more radical and generous policy.

The £600 million cost of the UK Government scheme means £60m of “consequentials” will come to the Scottish Government under the Barnett formula.

But so far there has been no pledge that they will use the extra cash to fulfil that 2007 pledge and ensure all P1-P3 pupils get a free healthy lunch.

Proposals for free school meals date back a long time. Former Scottish Socialist Party MSP Tommy Sheridan brought forward a Bill on the issue in the first session of the Scottish Parliament, but it was voted down.

Scottish Labour still does not seem too keen on universal free school meals, saying they may be desirable but are not necessarily the best use of money given the current economic pressures.

But a whole raft of organisations are now pressing the Scottish Government to commit itself to free meals and give pupils the same entitlement as those in England.

A letter signed by the Church of Scotland, Children 1st, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the STUC and others argues free healthy school lunches would give a “direct and immediate boost to the wellbeing of children and families across 
Scotland”.

John Dickie, from the Child Poverty Action Group, says: “With Scotland’s families being battered by UK government tax and benefit policies, stagnating wages and soaring food prices, free healthy school lunches have never been so important. It is great news for children in England that this policy is now being adopted south of the Border but its vital the policy is now fully implemented in Scotland.”

Apparently, there is some scepticism among headteachers and school governors in England about whether the free meals will ever materialise.

They claim it will be simply be impractical for many schools to provide a hot meal for every pupil by September next year because they do not have the necessary space and facilities in terms of kitchens, storage and 
dining halls.

And Westminster watchers have noted that the coalition pledge has itself shifted – from “a hot, nutritious meal at lunchtime” to “a healthy meal in the middle of the day”. A U-turn on “hot” meals might mean what pupils get turns out to be packed lunches.

So backsliding by the UK coalition could leave the SNP with the chance to ensure it is not outdone after all. A commitment by Mr Salmond to use that extra cash to fulfil his 2007 promise would put Scotland in the lead again.