THE LOCAL branch of the Labour Party has expressed its disappointment at the recent decision by councillors not to implement universal free school meals in Shetland schools.
Chair Susan Bowie and secretary Gordon Thomson wrote in a letter that “this winter is the time to support pupils and families by giving them a decent meal in the middle of the day”.
A motion was presented to elected members last week by Ian Scott and Stephen Leask encouraging Shetland Islands Council (SIC) to introduce free meals for all pupils “as soon as humanly possible”.
With the plan being to fund this by dipping into the council’s reserves, the motion was defeated by 14 votes to five.
One of those voting in favour of the motion was Labour councillor Tom Morton, who represents Shetland North.
The amendment against the motion was led by depute leader Gary Robinson, who felt the matter would be targeted more towards the Scottish Government.
Many others expressed concern about spending more from the reserves after auditors signalled their worry at the SIC’s financial sustainability.
At the moment only early years and primary pupils up to P5 receive universal free meals in Scotland, with the Scottish Government’s roll-out to P6 and P7 currently delayed.
Outside of this families have to be on a certain income before they can be eligible for free school meals.
Scott and Leask argued that the SIC should go one further and extend free meals to all pupils, including those in secondaries, and that the money needed was available.
Estimates had priced this at around an extra spend of £630,000, including recurring staffing costs of £132,654.
The Scottish Government recently pledged more than £300,000 to the council for capital use ahead of the P6 and P7 roll-out.
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In its letter the Labour branch wrote that fee universal meals would be a “good investment in our young people at a time when money is tight for many families”.
“A good meal in the middle of the day means that pupils are not going hungry and will be more able to learn as a result,” it added.
“One argument put forward was that many secondary pupils prefer to go out of school. If this is just for junk food, or a packet of crisps and a tin of juice, it is not helping them.
“Give them the option of a good, nourishing meal and they are then free to go out and about in the remainder of the lunch hour.
“It is not just a case of keeping the auditors happy, although we believe there are other ways to do this.”
Prior to the motion a report on various options for school meals had already been brought to the council’s education and families committee but elected members 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.
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