Free School Meals (Scotland) Bill
UNISON Scotland's response to Frances Curran MSP's
Consultation on the proposed Free School Meals (Scotland) Bill.
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
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
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
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
(i) Geography (e.g. schools within areas of social
deprivation or particular local authorities)
(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
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
(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
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:
- Caroline Walker Trust
- Food Standards Agency
- 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
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
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.
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)