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Education / Canteens could go cashless in bid to reduce stigma of free school meals

The Anderson High School. Photo: Shetland News

WORK is underway on making cafeterias at four Shetland secondary schools ‘cashless’ in the hope that it could reduce the stigma of people accessing free school meals.

Shetland Islands Council is looking into developing a new system for all secondary pupils at the Anderson, Brae, Sandwick and Mid Yell schools which would see them use YoungScot cards to pay for food.

Catering and cleaning team leader Neil Beattie updated members of Lerwick Community Council about the plans on Monday night after concerns were previously raised about the set-up at the Anderson.

At an earlier meeting of the community council it was remarked that it was not fair that people receiving free school meals could be easily identified as they paid using a card, while other pupils used cash.

At Brae and Mid Yell tokens are used for free school meals.

Shetland is thought to have the lowest uptake of free school meals in Scotland and it is often said there is a stigma attached to being recognised as someone who accesses them.

Beattie told the community council that the issue was raised to him at the start of the school year.

After looking at various options, the preferred way forward is to use YoungScot cards – which are given out to everyone aged 11-26 in Scotland – to digitally pay for school meals.

It is hoped that by using a YoungScot card for all purchases, no-one will know the origin of the money on the card.

A different digital system called ParentPay is used in primary schools, but this sees the council charged a transaction fee for every time a meal is bought, while the YoungScot system only includes a yearly maintenance fee.

It could take six weeks from order to implementation, Beattie said, while a trip is taking place soon to Midlothian to see the system in action.

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It is expected to cost over £20,000, meaning it would have to go through an open procurement process.

“There’s a bit of work to be done, but we are looking into it,” Beattie said.

Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament Jonathan Dorrat said it sounded like a “great idea” and added that using YoungScot cards for lunches had previously been raised by the Anderson High School student council.

Lerwick South councillor Peter Campbell hailed it as an “absolutely excellent idea”.

“We have effectively a large percentage of people who would be entitled to school meals who are not claiming,” he said.

Campbell also highlighted government schemes like pupil equity funding which provides cash to councils based on the number of people claiming free school meals, meaning that more money could in theory come Shetland’s way if extra eligible people claimed meals.

“I think it’s the way forward and to my mind it’s reasonably cost effective,” he said.

Fellow Lerwick councillor John Fraser echoed Campbell’s views, saying Shetland is “penalised” through initiatives like pupil equity funding.

“It is a barrier to Shetland being able to access much needed funding,” he said.

Fraser asked what would happen if a child forgot take their card with them, with Beattie saying that a pupil would be able to enter a PIN number instead.

He said back-up information would be kept on the system’s servers, including details about any allergies.

Gary Robinson, meanwhile, said he was “really disappointed” that a system like this was not in place when the new Anderson opened in 2017 – despite assurances that it would be.

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