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Free School Meals (Scotland) Bill

UNISON Scotland's response to Frances Curran MSP's Consultation on the proposed Free School Meals (Scotland) Bill.

October 2005


UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing over 150,000 members working in the Scottish Health Service, local government, utilities, further and higher education and other public sector providers, as well as in some of Scotland's largest private sector areas including energy. We have members who are involved in delivering school meal services.

UNISON Scotland has long campaigned in favour of universal entitlement to free school meals. We believe it would help improve the health of the nation, as well as tackling priority issues of poverty and social exclusion. We welcome the opportunity to respond to this consultation.

Free School Meals Background

The proposed new Bill builds on the widespread support for the School Meals (Scotland) Bill, which was defeated in 2002. UNISON Scotland was part of the broad coalition of organisations backing that Bill and has continued to support the Scottish Free School Meals Campaign.

Support for free school meals and for improving the quality of school meals has been growing in Scotland and across the UK. The Scottish Executive's expert panel's 2002 report Hungry for Success led to increased funding to improve nutritional standards and recommended practices to maximise the anonymity of free school meal tickets to reduce stigma and increase take-up. More recently south of the border Education Secretary Ruth Kelly is expected to comply with recommendations from their expert panel's report Turning the Tables - Transforming School Meals. It called for a ban on low-quality foods high in fat, salt and sugar, reformed or reconstituted foods made from 'meat slurry' and a further ban on chocolate, crisps, and sugary fizzy drinks from vending machines. UNISON welcomes the fact school meals are at the top of the political agenda, but believes that along with the focus on entitlement and nutritional standards, it has to be recognised that quality and achieving those standards is dependent on a properly resourced and staffed service, with fair pay and conditions.

Recent research has emphasised the continued and in some cases growing health gap between rich and poor, with anti-poverty groups arguing that free school meals is a key element in reducing that gap. Current health concerns which this measure could also address include obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

UNISON Scotland welcomes the extra £63m funding which the Scottish Executive committed to improve the quality of meals and facilities in school kitchen and dining areas and the further £70m recently pledged. However, we entirely reject Ministers' preference for ‘targeting' free school meals, as opposed to universal entitlement. Such an approach may sound logical, but a study from the University of Dundee published in September 2005 showed the difficulty of effectively targeting help to the poorest families. It demonstrated that universal entitlement is "the only mechanism for consistently providing welfare to all low income households". Researchers Carlo Morelli and Paul Seaman also said in Universal versus Targeted Benefits: The distributional effects of free school meals: "It is hard to conclude that the current system represents anything other than a wholly inadequate method of reducing child poverty."

Children's health before commercial factors

UNISON Scotland has long argued that quality of services in the public sector is dependent on proper funding, training and fair pay and conditions for staff. There are many aspects of compulsory competitive tendering, Private Finance Initiative and Public Private Partnership schemes which we have warned about over the years, arguing that quality is compromised by commercial considerations to the considerable detriment of families using public services.

This is particularly apparent with school meals where the health of our children should always come before cost factors. Ours and others' warnings are finally being heeded as the issue of free school meals has risen up the political agenda.

In Hungry for Success there was recognition of the fact that to improve standards a period of stability is required "free from the commercial pressures of competition, for a suitable period of time." The report also made a specific recommendation around the duty of Best Value (the successor to compulsory competitive tendering legislation), stating that "in any Best Value review the role of the school meal service as part of the education and health strategies should be taken into account. It should not be considered simply as a commercial trading activity." The Turning the Tables - Transforming School Meals report raised concerns about the impact of PFI in England. It stated that the Government must ensure that current PFI contracts and school building initiatives "do not impose barriers to the improvement of school food and ensure that in future all school PFIs incorporate building specifications which enable the main meal to be cooked on the premises and practical cooking skills to be taught to all pupils. The Government should require all partners in PFI deals to be bound by the new standards. The existence of long-term contracts cannot be allowed to adversely affect the health of pupils in PFI schools." This recommendation must also be applied in Scotland. Suitable dining areas and facilities to cook fresh produce on-site are integral to providing quality schools meal services.

A UNISON commissioned report School Meals Markets and Quality published last month highlighted the problems of CCT, and of PFI in English schools surveyed, stating that CCT "is now widely considered a disaster for public services in general and school meals in particular", while Best Value has done little to reverse the trend. It recommends that all new secondaries and primary schools above an agreed size - PFI funded or not - must include a full production kitchen.

Response by UNISON Scotland

1. The main proposal of the Free School Meals (Scotland) Bill is to provide free school meals to all Scottish children in state primary schools.

(a) Do you support this extension?



(b) If yes why do you favour this?

UNISON Scotland believes that access to free school meals for all children is a very simple, yet very effective way to encourage healthier eating habits now and in the future. As diet plays such an important part in overall health, particularly in growing children, this should have a major impact in the longer term in improving the health of the nation. It will also help to reduce the ways in which poverty and social exclusion affect families' health. Scottish Executive figures from September 2005 show that mortality rates for people under 75 in the most deprived areas are three times higher than in the most affluent areas and the health gap is widening because better-off families are improving their health at a faster rate.

Universal entitlement is essential to gaining health and other benefits because it:

  • removes the stigma (and related social and psychological impact) of only those on the lowest incomes being entitled to free school meals, thereby increasing uptake
  • promotes the concept of equality of opportunity, social inclusion and removes a recognised potential cause of bullying, or simple, yet distressing, ‘feeling of difference' which affects children's self esteem
  • fits with the fundamental principle of universal welfare services free at the point of use
  • benefits families currently caught in the poverty trap of just missing out on qualifying for free school meals.

We believe the Bill would boost children's learning as proper nutritional intake helps concentration. There are also social benefits for pupils in sharing a meal with others.


(a) As well as extending entitlement to free school meals to all primary school children the Bill would also give powers to Scottish Ministers to further extend provision to older children. On what grounds would you favour extension to older children - (please tick all the options which you would support)

(i) Geography (e.g. schools within areas of social deprivation or particular local authorities)

(ii) Age

(iii) Pilot schemes (individual or groups of schools chosen to test the effects of free school meal provision on health, attendance, attainment etc).

UNISON Scotland supports free school meals for all children at school in Scotland. Given the defeat in the Scottish Parliament of the School Meals (Scotland) Bill we understand the reasoning behind this proposed Bill starting out with primary school children, but giving the Scottish Executive powers to extend entitlement further. We would therefore support all of options (i), (ii) and (iii) being available to increase provision, but our preference is for all children in secondary schools to also be entitled to free school meals.

(b) Why do you favour extension on these grounds?

We cannot see any grounds for not extending entitlement to all secondary children. We would expect that pilot schemes based on these grounds would show hard evidence that for example, health, take-up, attendance and attainment are boosted by free meals. However, it is our position that such pilots are not necessary and we should follow the excellent example of countries such as Finland and Sweden whose children have long benefited from free school meals for all.

3. The Bill would give free school meals to all primary school children in state schools but if Ministers chose to further extend provision to older children who would you support gaining entitlement?

i) All children in state schools up to the Minimum School Leaving Age at 16 years of age.

ii) All children in state schools up to a certain age. If Yes what age?

iii) All children attending state secondary schools?

iv) Other age you think appropriate (please state what age and why).

Option iii). If aiming to reduce stigma, then clearly all school children should be eligible, with no age restrictions. It could also be a financial disincentive to children staying on at school if only those up to the school leaving age of 16 are eligible.


(a) At the time of the "Hungry for Success" report Scottish Ministers

introduced measures to eliminate children experiencing stigma when they took free school meals. In your personal or professional experience do you believe that stigma still exists for those claiming free meals? Yes/No


(b) If yes. How can stigma best be eliminated?

By universal provision. It is clear that efforts to use swipe cards and other measures do not resolve the issue of stigma.

5. Do you think that the advertising of junk food and fizzy/sugary drinks in schools should be regulated and effectively banned? Yes/No


6. Do you think that vending machines dispensing unhealthy foods should be regulated and effectively banned from school premises? Yes/No

Yes. There is increasing support for this, with action expected to ban the sale of such foods and drinks in schools south of the border. UNISON would extend such a ban to cover the sale of unhealthy food and drinks by school premises, for example a mobile chip van/burger bar.

7. The Bill will require Scottish Ministers to set nutritional standards for school meals. Which existing set of standards do you think they should be based on:

  1. Caroline Walker Trust
  2. Food Standards Agency
  3. Other (Please state which and your reasons).

Option (ii) We support nutrient based standards set by the Food Standards Agency. However, we would stress that standards should be reviewed regularly in consultation with education authorities, health boards and school boards, trade unions representing educational and support staff, as well as school pupils to ensure their voice is heard in considering what is nutritious and likely to appeal to pupils. Information on nutritional content should be provided to pupils and parents.

UNISON Scotland agrees with the Scottish Free School Meals campaign that there should be a national debate on whether it would be useful to introduce targets for the use of organic, locally sourced and unprocessed food in school meals.

8. Who do you think should be ultimately responsible for dealing with complaints about the nutritional quality of school meals?

i) Local authorities

ii) Individual schools

iii) The Schools Inspectorate

iv) Someone else (please state who)

Option (iii) We believe local authorities should deal with initial complaints. If children or parents feel the complaint has not been dealt with properly we support them having the right to have it independently investigated and adjudicated on by the Schools Inspectorate.


9. How would you encourage children to eat healthier food?

A whole school approach is essential, with integrated strategies ensuring a good choice of appealing healthy foods, combined with fun and innovative learning methods to teach children about diet and health. Key to offering good choices is to ensure that unhealthy choices are not available within the school environment, whether in vending machines, the cafeteria or by school premises. Another factor in influencing children's eating habits is sponsorship and advertising, which should be carefully considered, taking into account relevant healthy eating strategies. The Bill's provision for access to free drinking water and milk with school meals will help cut children's consumption of fizzy, sugary drinks.

UNISON Scotland applauds examples of good practice such as Glasgow City Council's free fruit scheme for primary and nursery schools (in conjunction with Greater Glasgow NHS Board) and free breakfasts in primary schools.



We believe that one of the best ways to tackle the appalling Scottish diet and the relationship between poverty and ill-health is to provide healthy and nutritious food to all our young people. The simplest and most obvious way to do this is by providing them with free school meals. We fully support the proposed Free School Meals (Scotland) Bill. Resources must be made available to ensure proper staffing levels and facilities for delivering healthy meals in all Scotland's schools.

* Click here for: School meals, markets and quality Sept 2005 - An independent report from Steve Davies of Cardiff University, commissioned by UNISON, to be considered with this response (pdf UNISON UK website)


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For Further Information Please Contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
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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Submissions index | Home


Previous School Meals responses

2002: UNISON Scotland's response to the
School Meals (Scotland) Bill

2002:UNISON Scotland's response to the consultation document by the Expert Panel on School Meals: