Education / More pupils to be eligible for free school meals after councillors approve criteria change

The school clothing grant is also set to increase by 50 per cent

MORE young people will be able to access free school meals in Shetland after a change to eligibility criteria by councillors.

The school clothing grant is also set to increase by 50 per cent.

The financial impact on Shetland Islands Council (SIC) from the changes will be covered in 2023/24 by a cost of living fund set up last year, which still has plenty of cash left to use.

It came after council officers warned against the move in case it meant taking a further “unsustainable” draw from the SIC’s reserves.

The decision was made at a meeting of the full Shetland Islands Council on Wednesday.

It means the criteria for free school meals in Shetland will align to that of the clothing grant.

If applied at the moment it would mean more than 90 pupils who are required to pay for meals would be eligible for free food.


At the moment only early years and primary pupils up to P5 receive universal free meals in Scotland, with the Scottish Government’s extended 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.

As of 30 January there were 360 pupils accessing free school meals and 514 receiving the clothing grant, which gives yearly payments of between £100 and £180 to families.

A report to councillors said increasing the clothing grant in addition to realigning free school meal eligibility would result in a total maximum financial impact to the SIC of £111,366.

But this was calculated from everyone eligible taking up school meals, which is extremely unlikely.

The decision has a fairly convoluted history; the education and families committee called for a report last year on the issue, before officers recommended against implementing the changes.

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But the committee decided to press ahead, as did the policy and resources committee before the matter went in front of the full council this week.

The fund which will be used to pay for the changes was set up last year in a bid to give extra support to people struggling with the cost of living.

It redirected money coming Shetland Islands Council’s way via net revenues from Crown Estate Scotland assets up to 12 miles at sea, which are passed on to local authorities.

One strand of the funding was to support communities and services deliver activities through the winter.

But finance manager Paul Fraser told Wednesday’s meeting that a “substantial element” of the half a million remains unused.

Depute leader Gary Robinson paid tribute to Lerwick South member Dennis Leask for offering the suggestion of using the fund to cover the costs. There will also be an annual review.


Leask previously said he understood only £83,000 had been taken from the £500,000 to date.

Meanwhile education and families committee chairman Davie Sandison said he would like the alternations to be implemented as soon as possible.

“I do believe that we don’t really know what the uptake might be, and we don’t really know what the cost will be, but the fact is we’ve got the ability to do this, and I strongly support trying to target our resources in this way to the benefit of those most in need,” he said.

Shetland Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) manager Karen Eunson, meanwhile, said the organisation is “extremely busy” with particularly high demand for support from people worried about how to pay their energy costs.

The CAB is on hand to offer free and impartial advice about a range of issues, including benefits and energy bills.


“The demand for energy advice in calendar year 2022 was more than double what it had been the previous year,” Eunson said.

“We gave almost five times as much advice on emergency fuel vouchers and almost eight times as much advice on fuel debt in 2022 as we had in 2021.

“In calendar year 2022, Shetland CAB secured a client financial gain of over £1.9m, mostly as a result of successful benefit applications and appeals.

“This figure includes £106,846 brought in for local people as fuel vouchers, energy company refunds and as support payments to reduce or write off fuel debt.”

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