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School Meals Bill

UNISON Scotland's response to the
School Meals (Scotland) Bill

April 2002

Executive Summary

UNISON Scotland fully supports the aims of the School Meals (Scotland) Bill to provide a free nutritious meal for all pupils in local authority schools.

We believe that this Bill:

  • Tackles poverty and social exclusion.
  • Supplies a welfare service free at the point of use.
  • Addresses poor nutrition standards in Scotland and related health problems for children today and in later life.
  • Addresses related socio-economic implications of poor diet.

  • Provides children with sustenance that is conducive to learning, attending, and behaving well in school.
  • Removes the stigma of free meals, and helps families not entitled to school meals but on low incomes.
  • Demonstrates government joined up thinking by creating additional employment opportunities, that are likely to be part-time, and appeal to women / others with caring responsibilities.
  • Establishes a child's right to a free, healthy and nutritious meal.
  • Promotes positive social interaction for all children by the event of sharing a meal with others.

We welcome the provisions of the Bill to allow Scottish Ministers to formulate a definition of "nutritious meal". However, we would wish to see school pupils themselves being consulted on these regulations, along with relevant trade unions.


UNISON Scotland welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Private Member's School Meals (Scotland) Bill. UNISON is the largest trade union in Scotland, with over 140,000 members working in a range of public services. We have members who are currently involved in delivering school meals in Scotland's schools. As a trade union that takes a holistic approach to representing our members and their families, we have a keen interest in a Bill that seeks to address issues of health, nutrition, poverty and social exclusion.

This paper constitutes UNISON Scotland's views on the School Meals (Scotland) Bill.



Tackling poverty and social exclusion

UNISON believes the provision of a healthy mid-day meal is a positive step towards addressing food poverty and social exclusion, ensuring that all children do receive at least one decent meal a day. The inclusiveness of providing the benefit for all, removes stigma, and promotes the concept of equality of opportunity to children from a young age.

UNISON's study of school meals *, published March 2002, found that the price of school meals across the UK has risen faster than inflation, which clearly impacts upon take up of meals. The price of school meals increased by 5.6% in primary schools and 3.6% in secondary schools over the past six years, whilst inflation increased by only 1.7%. Although a UK-wide survey, the report revealed important statistics on Scottish schools. School meal prices were the highest in Edinburgh at £1.85 (secondary) and £1.65 (primary), and in secondary schools in Aberdeenshire (£1.70) and primary schools in North Ayrshire (£1.50). Other Scottish authorities are able to provide meals at much lower prices: Dumfries and Galloway meals are 95p (primary) and £1.00 (secondary), and in Glasgow £1.10 (primary and secondary). The provision of free school meals for all pupils would end this massive price variation, ensuring decent food is available to all children, regardless of which local authority they are in or ability to pay.

Supplies a welfare service free at the point of use

UNISON supports the fundamental principle of the provision of universal welfare services free at the point of use. The NHS, state education and many local authority services are examples of welfare services provided universally free at the point of use and paid for through tax and National Insurance.

In Scotland, UNISON has welcomed a number of recent initiatives that have been provided universally free at the point of use:

  • The Scottish Executive's free personal care for the elderly scheme.
  • Scottish Executive's decision to give pensioners free off-peak bus travel across Scotland from October 2002.
  • Glasgow City Council's free breakfast clubs for all children who attend their schools.
  • Glasgow City Council provision of free use of swimming pools to all under 18s.

Initiatives provided on a universal basis have proved successful in achieving a high take up, are stigmatise less and hit the target more effectively. Universal benefits have a higher take up rate, for example Child Benefit has over a 98% take up. The costs of administration for universal benefits are lower - Child Benefit is only 2%, whereas it is over 10% for the targeted income support and over 30% for the social fund.

Means tested systems involve complex rules and complicated and expensive administration systems. They create poverty traps and work disincentives. Currently only children of parents in receipt of income support and income-based job seekers allowance are eligible for a free school meal in the middle of the day. Children from low income working families and children from families receiving Working Families Tax Credit are not eligible for free school meals. The Executive's own statistics show that only 1 in 5 children in Scotland qualifies for free school meals at present.

Tackling Stigma and Ending the Poverty Trap

The Scottish Executive has confirmed that 16 % of pupils in Scotland took free school meals in January 2000. That means that twenty per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals don't take them up. Stigma is a major reason for this. The Executive recognised this when Deputy Minister for Education Nicol Stephen said, "children need to feel able to take free school meals without fear of social stigma" (Executive Press Release 19.11.2001).

The Child Poverty Action Group has reported how children themselves feel stigmatised if they are entitled to a free school meal, where in order to receive this they are differentiated from paying pupils by: standing in a different queue, having a different coloured ticket, being on a different list, or receiving their meal last. Many local authorities have also recognised the issue of stigma - and the possibilities of bullying between children over meals status - by introducing cash-less schemes with swipe cards. However, experience has shown that it is difficult to get away from the fact that children receiving free meals have less credit on their swipe cards and children are still aware of the differences.

UNISON agrees that the provision of universal free school meals removes stigma altogether, and addresses the poverty trap of low incomes families who just miss out under the current system.

Nutrition and Health.

Scotland's reputation as the sick-man of Europe is well known, along with Glasgow's as the heart-attack capital. UNISON very much supports the Executive's initiatives to turn around Scotland's health problems. We believe that the provision of a nutritious meal for all children is intrinsic to strategies to improve public health.

The Child Poverty Action Group has compiled some key facts and figures supporting the case:

  • Scottish Office 1996 report Scotland's Health. A Challenge to Us All concluded: "the usual Scottish diet consumed by children is also that which would now be expected to be conducive to the development of adult chronic disease".
  • Poor families spend proportionately more of their income on food: 21% compared to national average of 17%.
  • Cheaper foods are generally the least nutritious, often fatty, oily, high in salt and sugar.
  • The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's Poverty and Social Exclusion 2000 survey found that 9% of "poor children" didn't have fresh fruit or vegetables daily and 21 % failed to have 2 substantive meals daily.
  • The National Diet and Nutrition Survey of 4-18 year olds found that three-quarters of the Scottish Children did not eat green leafy vegetables during the 7 day recording period, only a third ate salad vegetables, and a quarter ate citrus fruits (Gregory et al. National Diet and Nutrition Survey: young people aged 4 to 18. 2000).
  • Dental problems such as tooth decay and erosion are a result of frequent sugar intake and consumption of carbonated drinks. Pitts' Scottish Health Boards' Dental Epidemiological Programme (2000) reports that tooth decay in 5 year olds in Scotland is considerably higher than for the UK as a whole.

UNISON has concluded that the current state of Scotland's diet, particularly for young people, is so dire, that urgent action is required. We are gravely concerned at the inevitable health consequences that this will have on the Scottish population in later life, along with the socio-economic implications of an unhealthy nation on employment, GDP, the NHS, an ageing population and on other social provisions. We believe that the most appropriate way of addressing the appalling Scottish diet and its legacy is to provide healthy and nutritious food to young people. The simplest and most obvious way to do this, is the provision of a free school meal.

Implementing Nutritional Standards

UNISON supports the Bill's provisions for Scottish Ministers to make regulations on the definitions of "nutritious meal" and requiring milk and water to be made available to accompany the meal. We recognise the importance of promoting milk as an alternative to carbonated and sugary drinks, to develop healthy bones in children as they are growing and in later life.

Nutrition standards in Scottish school meals have declined since 1980 when the Education (Scotland) Act deregulated school meals and removed nutritional standards. The guidance offered in the Scottish Office's "Diet Action Plan Model Nutritional Guidelines", only applies to pre-fives and primary school children has not had enough impact to improve standards.

UNISON supported the Scottish Executive's move last year to establish an expert panel to devise national nutritional standards, improve the appeal of school meals and maximise the uptake of free school meals. However, we believe that this action does not go far enough in addressing stigma, or in looking at improving Scotland's health for the future.

We agree with the Bill's provision that regulations should be developed with representatives of education authorities, Health Boards, and school boards. UNISON would like to see representatives of trade unions (representing educational and support staff) included in this consultation process, as well as pupils themselves. It is essential that those at the front line in delivering the meals, educating pupils, and the pupils consuming the food, should be involved in consultations on what is "nutritious" and likely to appeal.

Ensuring that pupils will actually eat the meals provided is a real challenge. However, we do not believe that this is sufficient reason to dismiss the Bill. Nutritious food will have to appeal to pupils, there will need to be an element of choice, and the development of strategies to nurture children to understand food, experiment with new types of food (such as unusual fruit and vegetables), and support for pupils to choose a healthy diet.

Individual Dietary Needs

UNISON welcome's the Bill's provision to take account of cultural, religious, special health and dietary needs of pupils. It is important that pupils are provided with food that is suitable for them, and respects their cultural, religious or health requirements. Equally in the interests of good practice, where it is reasonably practicable, food should be provided which meets the dietary needs of pupils based on conscience, for example vegetarian diets.

Food For Thought

The benefits of providing a healthy midday meal free to all children are not just those of improving physical health. Children need adequate nutrition to concentrate and learn whilst at school. Teachers have reported that since the advent of breakfast clubs attendance at school has improved, and children are more responsive and attentive. This has real benefits in the classroom as teachers are able to focus on teaching, not crowd control, and pupils' receive a better education. The introduction of nutritional free midday meals for all pupils should have similar advantages.

In addition, it can be helpful for local communities in reducing general nuisance and crime if all pupils stay in school during the lunchtime break.

Creating Greater Capacity in the School Meals Sector.

Encouraging greater take up of school meals, so as all children consume free school meals, will mean a substantial increase in resources needed for delivery in many areas of Scotland. An increase in personnel will be required to prepare and serve the meals, and to supervise meal times.

UNISON views this as a positive outcome of the Bill, demonstrating cross cutting initiatives of a Parliament focussing on tackling ill health, poverty, social exclusion and unemployment. This Bill will create employment opportunities, likely to be on a part time basis and during the day time, which will be suitable for people (predominantly women) who have caring responsibilities outside of school hours. However, the Executive may wish to take the opportunity to encourage non-traditional sections of the population into this work, to get away from the stereotyping of "dinner ladies".

Children's Rights

UNISON supports the view that this Bill is about children's rights. Establishing the right of every child to be fed adequately without fear of discrimination, stigma, lack of financial resources or parental concern is a positive step. Providing a free nutritional meal directly to school pupils puts the resources exactly where they are required.

Promoting Positive Social Interaction for Children

We believe that the provision of universal free school meals provides a positive social opportunity for children to sit down with others, interact, converse with peers, and share food. Free school meals could increase the level of basic social skills, such as use of cutlery and table manners. In an age where more people go for take away food, eat from burger bars, consume TV dinners and junk food on the go, the positive interaction that can be gained from sitting down to eat a meal with others is invaluable. This experience is important for all children, irrespective of family income. Pupils with parents working long hours are as likely to miss out on the social gathering at meal time, as those from low income families.

Providing pupils with a nutritious meal could also counter the mass marketing and advertising campaigns children are constantly bombarded with on TV, in local shops, magazine and billboards. UNISON believes that it is important that children are aware of alternative wholesome and tasty foods, to burgers, confectionery, sugary cereals, crisps and fizzy drinks, which tend to be aggressively promoted to young people. UNISON concludes that the issue of all food in schools, including vending machines tuck shops and breakfast clubs, must be debated with the impact of sponsorship and advertising carefully considered.


UNISON Scotland fully supports the School Meals Bill, and hopes that the Scottish Parliament gives careful consideration to the merits of the proposals as set out in the Bill. We believe that this would be a worthwhile and timely provision, tackling poverty, social exclusion, poor diet and health. At the same time it would demonstrate a caring Scotland, nurturing its young people, and providing for the future health and wellbeing of our nation.

* Please find attached: School Meals in the 21st Century, A UNISON Report (March 2002) Commissioned by the Labour Research Department, to be considered with this paper.

For further information please contact:
Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
UNISON Scotland
14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX
Tel 0845 355 0845 Fax 0141 342 2835

e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk


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