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Education / Disappointment as expansion of free primary school meals delayed

Shetland North councillor Tom Morton.

A LOCAL Labour councillor says “disappointed doesn’t begin to cover it” after the Scottish Government’s full roll-out of free school meals for older primary children was pushed back to 2026.

Tom Morton, who represents Shetland North, said it was another delay from the “intellectually, morally and politically bankrupt SNP government”.

He previously voiced his support for universal free school meals across both primary and secondaries in Shetland.

The latest delay was revealed in the recently published programme for government for 2023 to 2024.

It said the Scottish Government would “work with COSLA in the coming year to prepare schools and infrastructure for the expansion of universal free school meal provision to Primary 6 and Primary 7 pupils during 2026, starting with those in receipt of the Scottish Child Payment and work with local authorities to ensure that school meals meet the highest standards of nutrition, recognising that this is vital to our children’s effective learning”.

The national roll-out to provide all primary children free meals was initially due to take place last year, but it was delayed.

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.

Morton said the latest delay was a “pretty mealy-mouthed way of punting it beyond the next Holyrood election”.

Barnardo’s, a charity which supports children and young people, also said it was disappointing that the roll-out had been delayed.

A spokesperson for the SNP said in response: “As set out previously, this will be a two-stage process that will see free school meals first extended to pupils whose families are in receipt of the Scottish Child Payment, before then extending to all children in primary school during 2026.

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“Under the SNP, Scotland has the most generous universal free school meal provision of any nation in the UK.

“All pupils in primaries one to five, all pupils in special schools and eligible pupils in Primary 6 through to S6 currently benefit, saving families an average of £400 per eligible child per year which makes a huge difference to families struggling with Westminster’s cost of living crisis.

“What a contrast to the UK Labour party – with Sir Keir Starmer seemingly ruling out universal free school meals as he ditches every progressive principle, sells out ordinary families and turns into a Tory tribute act.

Highlands & Islands MSP Emma Roddick. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

“While people in Scotland are rightly asking what the Labour party stand for, the SNP are continuing to take action to deliver for children and families across Scotland.”

Meanwhile the isles’ only SNP representative in the Scottish Parliament – Highlands and Islands MSP Emma Roddick – said there is plenty in the programme which will benefit Shetland.

She said the Scottish Government’s intention to publish a plan of action to tackle housing in island, as well as rural, areas, will be “very welcome news”.

“The Scottish Government has already made clear its commitment to boosting housing available, especially for key workers, and this new plan will help to retain folk in their communities as well as attract new people to them,” Roddick said.

“By setting targets to build housing in rural and island communities, the Scottish Government is ensuring that the £752m it is investing this year will not simply go to increasing the sprawl of the central belt, but also to the places where a few homes make a huge difference.

“The cost-of-living crisis has hit family budgets hard and the Scottish Government is doing what it can to help. The commitment to funding an increase in childcare and expanding school meals will provide a much-needed boost of support for families across Shetland.

“Ferries are at the centre of island life, and the Scottish Government is committed to investing in services.

“We’ve already committed to freezing fares on the Northern Isles network, and with the upcoming fair fares review, we will see what further action can be taken to support those who use our ferries to ensure that they are affordable.”

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