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Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill

The UNISON Scotland response to the Communities Committee regarding the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill

November 2006

Scottish Parliament Communities Committee
Call for Evidence: Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill


UNISON Scotland welcomes the opportunity to submit a response to the Communities Committee regarding the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill. We are Scotland's largest public sector 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. A large number of UNISON members are involved in delivering school meal services and participate in a number of successful initiatives promoting nutritional standards and increased take up of school meals, particularly in the Hungry for Success and other related initiatives.

UNISON Scotland submitted a response in August 2006 to the Scottish Executive's consultation on the, then, School (Nutrition and Health) (Scotland) Bill. That submission reiterated the strong case for universal free school meals.

Amendment enabling councils to introduce free school meals

In this response for the Communities Committee we repeat that we would prefer an amendment to provide for a universal entitlement to free school meals for all primary and secondary school children in Scotland. To that end we also support Frances Curran MSP's Education (School Meals etc.) (Scotland) Bill to introduce free school meals in primary schools. Her proposed legislation received 96% support in the consultation carried out last year. We contend this shows the strong public demand in Scotland for action to improve our children's health - action which goes beyond the aims of the Scottish Executive's Bill.

However, we propose that a major contribution to improving the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill would be an amendment to enable councils to introduce free school meals in their area. Not only do we believe that this would benefit children where local authorities do introduce free meals, but it would effectively allow the creation of ‘pilots' which in our view would provide the evidence of the health benefits. The experience of Hull City Council shows how dramatic the results can be in a short space of time and we believe Scottish councils should be given the powers to introduce this where they feel it would play a part in tackling health issues such as childhood obesity and diabetes as well as the health impact of poverty and deprivation.

The Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill

The Committee has asked for written evidence on the general principles of the Bill. Our response shall encompass each of those they listed:

General comments on the objectives of the Bill

UNISON Scotland supports the aims and objectives and has been a strong supporter of the Hungry for Success programme. We believe that health statistics and the generally poor diet in Scotland demonstrate the need for urgent and innovative action on children's eating habits. The Bill's measures will make a major difference even if they do not at this stage go as far as we would like.

A key outcome should be to initiate a culture of healthy eating which will have long-term benefits for the health of the nation. The Scottish Executive has a number of commitments to improving nutritional standards in the public sector. However, to ensure they are implemented in a cross-cutting way across all departments, UNISON wants to see a ‘Food for Good' programme of action across the sector, with schools a key component. This would involve nutritional standards being set for all public sector provision of food, with regulators responsible for ensuring compliance. This would cover schools, hospitals, prisons, care homes etc. and would build on the work already underway in schools and in the health service by NHS Quality Improvement Scotland. UNISON SCOTLAND'S ‘Food for Good' Charter, launched in 2003, urged targets on the NHS for sourcing organic and fair trade food as well as dealing with concerns about privatisation of hospital catering and the impact on the quality of food available to patients.

The aim of the new ‘Food for Good' programme would be to contribute to improving the nation's health and to raising the awareness of diet as a key factor in health improvement. As part of the ‘Food for Good' initiative, UNISON Scotland urges action to source public sector food locally, with ideally an organic option on every menu. Local authorities such as East Ayrshire have been successfully providing organic and local food for some schools within EU Procurement rules. There is no reason why this kind of approach cannot be rolled out nationwide. The public sector spend on food in Scotland is £85m annually and this leverage can be used to pressure suppliers to dramatically increase the availability of sustainable food. We then have the double benefit of this approach being both healthier and better for the environment. The food sector can make a big contribution to action on climate change. Research published in September 2006 by WWF Scotland found that the Hungry for Success initiative can reduce the Ecological Footprint (environmental impact) of school food by 40%.

Another very important point, which is fundamental to the provision of healthy food in schools, is the need for a commitment to a properly resourced and staffed service. This requires fair pay and conditions and proper training and the absolute principle that children's health comes before commercial factors.

It is also essential that if there are impediments to promoting children's health which are linked to the Private Finance Initiative and Public Private Partnership schemes, then these are overcome. Clearly we need to ensure schools have suitable dining areas, kitchens and equipment to allow staff to cook fresh produce on site and serve it in a positive dining environment. If PFI/PPP schemes do not allow for this, intervention is needed. We highlighted in our August 06 submission on the proposed Bill that the Turning the Tables - Transforming School Meals report for the Department of Education and Skills south of the border warned that: "The existence of long-term contracts cannot be allowed to adversely affect the health of pupils in PFI schools."

Similarly one of the recommendations in the Hungry for Success report was 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."

Local authorities and schools - and the wider public sector - must also be able to purchase food based on quality and nutritional content, without price being the over-riding factor. Wider issues, in terms of sustainable development and climate change, include sourcing fresh healthy food locally. All of these must be considered in efforts to improve health, along with related factors such as physical exercise and the provision of playing fields (something which has also been adversely affected by the PFI/PPP ‘regime').

The duty to ensure that all schools are health-promoting

UNISON Scotland supports this duty and the involvement of Scottish schools in the European Network of Health Promoting Schools. The World Health Organisation, which developed the Health Promoting School concept, says Health Promoting Schools focus on: caring for oneself and others, creating conditions conducive to health; making healthy decisions and taking control of life circumstances; preventing leading causes of death, disease and disability; influencing health-related behaviours through knowledge, skills and attitudes; building the capacity for peace, education, social justice, sustainable development and more. 

These are laudable objectives and fit well with the whole school approach and a partnership between the school population and the wider community. This can only be beneficial to the development of a culture of healthy eating. East Ayrshire's example of Hungry for Success showed the greatest uptake of new healthier school meals was in schools where the whole school approach was adopted enthusiastically.

Nutritional requirements for food and drink supplied in schools

We support enabling Ministers to set statutory nutritional standards. We would encourage in this respect the exploration of locally sourced and organic food in meeting nutritional requirements. A short-term expert working group will set the standards for schools. We believe the standards should be reviewed regularly in consultation with education authorities, parents, health boards, trade unions representing educational and support staff as well as school pupils.

The application of nutritional requirements

The Bill applies to state schools. Councils considering placing a child in an independent school or arranging private nursery provision must have regard to whether the establishment complies with the nutritional requirements. We do not see why the statutory standards should not also apply to private schools and nurseries. We have no objection to the exemptions covering, for example, Christmas lunches, school trips or community events held by third parties on school premises.

Provision of food and drink (within defined nutritional standards) at any time of the day, either free of charge or subject to a charge

We support the provision of healthy food, drinks and snacks at other times of the day than the main school meal. We applaud initiatives by a number of local authorities which are already, providing, for example, breakfast clubs, fresh fruit schemes and free milk.

Given that the Bill enables local authorities to provide free breakfasts to all pupils, we do not see why an amendment could not enable councils to provide free school lunches to all pupils if they wish to. For some councils in areas of high eligibility for school meals this may be cost effective (due to no longer needing administrative systems to charge for meals and to distinguish those who qualify for free meals), although we do not believe that that should be the motivation.

Promotion of school meals, in particular free school meals

While we support the duty on councils to promote school meals, we argue that the best way to promote them is to make them free. To support this we would point to the evidence of Hull City Council's Eat Well Do Well initiative and their innovative free school meals pilot in primary schools. Communities Committee members will have heard about this scheme. In 2004 Hull was the first local authority in England to use the ‘power to innovate' (receiving special permission from the Secretary of State) to offer every primary school child a free healthy school meal. For a variety of reasons, they introduced the healthy meals before the free meals and their example shows very well what the impact is of making meals free.

As members will be aware, many factors influence whether children choose to eat school meals. One fact planners have to address, as was experienced in Hull, is that sometimes introducing healthier foods can lead to a drop in the numbers taking school meals. Among the many possible reasons for this, we would highlight two: pupils being more used to the previous food on offer and resistant to change; and the availability of less healthy, but ‘popular' or ‘junk' food being available on or near the school grounds and/or in local shops. This is one reason why UNISON supports action to prevent junk food being sold in or near to schools.

What happened in Hull was that average school meal take-up rates fell from 48% to 36% across the city. However, once the healthy meals were made free, take-up rates rose quickly and are now an average 64%, with some schools at over 90% and one at 98% almost since the start of the three year scheme. An initial evaluation by Hull University concluded: "Approximately 64% of children currently take up the offer of free healthy school dinners. This is an outstanding achievement…The EWDW team have shown through a variety of measures how they have increased this take up…Undoubtedly the offer of a free meal is an important element in this achievement."

Last month the Prime Minister praised the initiative. Asked by a local MP in the House of Commons to congratulate the Hull achievements in the light of recent obesity figures, Tony Blair said: "I am delighted to congratulate them, and I am sure that it is an important part of the public health drive in Hull and elsewhere in the country. The reason it is important is that, as we extend community facilities, as we see changes in school dinners and in competitive sport in schools—which has increased to 80 per cent. from the 50 per cent. that we inherited—and as we are able to provide greater local community services in which public health is a major part, the general health of the nation will be improved, which will reduce the long-term costs in our health care system."

As Mr Blair identified, we believe that this investment in children's health now will in the long-term be a financial saving, as well as vastly improving quality of life.

In addition to the experience of Hull, a Dundee University study in 2005 showed the flaw in Ministers' preference for ‘targeting' free school meals. Existing eligibility criteria mean that they do not reach all families in need. The study 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." The evidence from Hull shows that a large number of pupils who would not previously have been eligible for free school meals have been eating the free healthy meals.

Finally, on this point, UNISON Scotland believes that the high support in consultation responses for Frances Curran's proposed free school meals Bill, at 96%, demonstrates the fact that this is a popular policy in Scotland and that it is widely seen as being a common sense measure. If members cannot support this, we would ask them to, at a minimum, support our proposal for enabling powers.

Protection of the identity of pupils receiving free school meals

Evidence shows that some pupils feel a connection between the stigma of free school meals and bullying. UNISON supports measures to ensure anonymity. However, these do not always work.

Again, such measures would not be necessary if we were to provide free meals for all school children. Doing so would:

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


UNISON urges members of the Committee to give their support to the principle of universal free school meals for all Scottish school children. However, if members do not feel able to commit to that at this stage we at least ask that they support the introduction of an amendment to this Bill, enabling councils to introduce free school meals in their areas.

We would also like to see healthy nutritious meals in schools as one part of a wider ‘Food for Good' initiative across the public sector which we believe would play a major part in improving Scotland's health.

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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