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Education / Offering free meals for all school children could cost SIC extra £630,000

OFFERING free school meals to all Shetland pupils in both primary and secondary would result in an additional cost to the council of around £630,000, new estimates suggest.

This would include an estimated one-off cost of around £200,000 for new equipment and alterations, and an extra £133,000 for staffing costs – while a loss of income would total nearly £300,000.

The figures are contained in a report on the future options around school meal provision, which will be presented to councillors next week.

There is desire from some in the council chamber go to beyond the current Scottish Government funded free school meal provision.

At the moment all nursery and primary pupils up to and including P5 do not need to pay for their meals, with the Scottish Government funding this cost.

Currently primary six and seven, and secondary pupils, need to pay unless they are eligible for free meals due to their parents’ income.

The Scottish Government’s national roll-out to provide all primary children free meals, due to take place in August 2022, has been delayed.

The report to councillors highlights that the catering service provides on average around 2,300 meals per day in Shetland, covering primary, secondary and early years.

At the moment around 80 per cent of children in early learning and P1-P5 access a school meal.

Previously free school meals were for families on low incomes, and at the moment around 340 pupils fall into this category.

Information on how to access free school meals can be found on the Shetland Islands Council website here.

The report to councillors provides cost estimates for a number of ways forward.

One option is to overcome the delay in the Scottish Government’s roll-out by introducing universal free school meals to all primary children in Shetland. This would come with an additional cost of £276,589.

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Providing universal free meals to all children in primary and secondary could cost an extra £627,973.

Extra cooks and kitchen assistants would be required, creating a recurring additional cost.

It would take longer to implement, and the report highlights that young people have an “element of choice” and cannot be forced to eat in school.

It also notes that in Shetland’s secondaries only around four in ten pupils have a meal within school.

Aligning payment for free school meals to the school clothing grant criteria would have an additional cost of £58,000.

Any change from the status quo would mean having to take more money from the council’s reserves.

The report is due to be presented to Shetland Islands Council’s education and families committee on Tuesday.

Councillors will have the chance to agree on an option to be considered for implementation, which will then form the basis of a more detailed report.

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