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Council / Free school meals for all a ‘shrewd investment’

A motion will go in front of Shetland’s councillors on Wednesday encouraging the SIC to introduce universal free school meals

A CANDIDATE in the last council election who says he suffered stigma when accessing free school meals as a youngster has welcomed a proposal to offer dinners at no cost to all pupils in Shetland.

Stephen Ferguson, who went to school in Glasgow and Kilmarnock before moving to Shetland, said free meals were a “marker of being from a bad family, and we were often bullied because of this”.

Local elected members Ian Scott and Stephen Leask will bring a motion to a meeting of the full Shetland Islands Council on Wednesday requesting that universal free school meals are brought in locally.

Stephen Ferguson.

They say this should be introduced “as soon as humanly possible” and that any cost implications be addressed from drawing from the SIC’s reserves.

At the moment most primary children received school meals for free, but in secondaries only those from families in certain incomes are eligible. The way these are accessed has often singled children out among their peers.

Ferguson, who stood in the Lerwick North and Bressay ward in May’s council elections, said he was “moved” by the notice of motion as he went through the experience of accessing free school meals.

There is a stigma associated with being a ‘dinner ticket’ kid,” he explained.

Ferguson added: “Children who are hungry will not be focused and will not achieve. This will impact our island in the future as our skills pool is depleted.

“Knowing that I had a warm meal at lunch was massively important to me.”

But he said with the cost of living increasing working families who were formerly stable will be pushed into poverty.

“We must acknowledge that this is no longer an issue just for the poorest in our community,” Ferguson said. “Introducing free school meals for all is a shrewd investment.

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“The number of kids who, like I did, receive free meals will only rise.

“The loss of confidence and self worth will rise with this. We need to be ensuring our children have, at the very least, a good chance at education…this ensures our islands are competitive, with an educated and skilled population.

“Making this universal removes the stigma and stops subjecting parents to what amounts to means testing.”

A report on various options for school meals was brought to the council’s education and families committee last week but councillors decided against looking further into universal free provision.

Instead the consensus favoured the idea of increasing clothing grants by 50 per cent while also aligning some payment criteria for free school meals to help low income families.

There were also warnings about the financial impact of rolling out universal provision, considering the SIC is already deemed to be in an unsustainable position. It is estimated it could cost the council an additional £630,000, including recurring staffing costs.

At the moment children up to primary five receive universal free meals, and the Scottish Government’s plan is to extend this to P6 and P7.

But Scott and Leask are in favour of free meal provision being extended to secondary pupils too.

Leask said he felt the issue should be discussed at the full council and not just the education and families committee.

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