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Education / Consider offering free school meals for all pupils, councillor suggests

Shetland Central councillor Ian Scott. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council (SIC) has been encouraged to “pioneer a healthier lifestyle for our young folk” by thinking about offering free school meals for all pupils.

Shetland Central councillor Ian Scott said he believed such a move for both primary and secondary pupils would encourage more children to eat better whilst also reducing stigma and poverty.

He made the suggestion during a meeting of Shetland Islands Council’s audit committee on Wednesday.

The committee heard a report from its internal auditors on a review of free school meal arrangements at Shetland Islands Council.

Free school meals are linked to the level of income/benefit a family receives.

But all primary one to three pupils in Scotland have been eligible for free school meals since 2015, and earlier this year this was extended to all in P4.

A further rollout to all primary school bairns is planned by the Scottish Government in 2022.

The average level of uptake across Shetland Islands Council’s primary schools in 2019/20 was 73 per cent.

But this will rise as the free meal expansion progresses, with the uptake in primary one to three now more than 90 per cent.

In response to the Covid pandemic the Scottish Government also made additional funding available so that eligible pupils still received funding in both term time and holidays while schools were shut.

From March 2020 to September 2021 nearly £227,000 was paid directly to applicants in Shetland.

The audit was largely positive, although among the points raised was the lack of arrangements in place to provide free school meal funding to families if a pupil is self-isolating due to Covid.

A report to members said the council accepted the observation and that a process would be developed.

Shetland Central member Moraig Lyall questioned if other extended absences, such as for psychological reasons, should then be eligible free school meal provision.

Corporate services director Christine Ferguson said for those type of absences relevant services would be involved, and support would be given.

Scott, however, used the time for debate to call for free school meals for all – “irrespective of age or income”.

He pointed to the number of young people in Lerwick supermarkets at lunchtime and suggested school meals could be a more nutritious option.

“We could pioneer a healthier lifestyle for young folk,” Scott said.

His view is echoed by trade union body STUC, which wrote to the Scottish Government earlier this year encouraging free meals to be offered to all primary and secondary pupils.

STUC general secretary Roz Foyer said: “While the Scottish Government have made some welcome advancements on free school meals policy in Scotland, it does not stretch far enough.

“Hunger, food insecurity, poverty, and stigma know no age boundaries, and action on poverty and inequality cannot be further delayed.”

The Scottish Greens – who are set to stand local candidates in the May council election – also advocate expanding free school meals to secondary pupils.