A QUARTER of children in the first three years of primary school have still not taken up their free school meal entitlement, new figures have revealed.
And it is families from poorer areas who are less likely to have used the free service than those living in more affluent parts of the country, experts warned.
We are finding in some places that it is parents from the poorer areas who are not taking it up.Barbara Schuler, policy manager at the National Parent Forum of Scotland
The policy, which provides free school dinners for pupils in primary one, two and three, was introduced in January by the Scottish Government in a bid to provide a hot meal for every youngster and tackle “the scourge of child poverty” north of the Border. It is said to be worth £330 a year for each eligible child.
Figures obtained from Scotland’s 32 councils found an increased number of children taking meals at school in most areas of the country since the service was brought in two months ago, lifting the overall take-up of the scheme to around 75 per cent.
However, some councils said they had expected uptake to be even higher, while figures varied widely across Scotland.
Barbara Schuler, policy manager at the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said that parents living in more deprived areas had been less likely to take up the free school meals as those in more affluent parts.
“We are finding in some places that it is parents from the poorer areas who are not taking it up as much as those in more prosperous areas,” she said.
“It begs the question as to whether this is down to a communication problem, if schools and the government are not getting their message out – both that this is happening and the nutritional value of what is on offer.”
Most children who do not eat meals at school have packed lunches provided by their parents, or go home for lunch.
Midlothian had the highest uptake, with 87 per cent of eligible children now taking school meals. In nearby East Lothian, however, the figure is just 68 per cent. Glasgow, meanwhile, said it had anticipated serving an extra 4,000 school meals a day, but the actual number has risen by just 2,800. Some councils were unable to provide information or give direct comparisons with previous years.
Ms Schuler added: “I think there is also an issue around the fact that at this age, a lot of children are still fussy eaters and parents feel it is easier to give them a packed lunch they will eat. However, a lot of schools are doing what they can to address this.”
She also said that some parents had raised concerns that a small number of schools were struggling to provide space for the extra numbers of children to eat. “For some schools, eating hall space is limited,” she said. “Obviously we would be concerned if there were not sufficient space for children to eat somewhere.”
A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said that capacity was not a factor in the lower-than-expected take up of the scheme, but admitted there had been problems in communicating the new service to parents.
“We are looking at a number of eventualities, including that in some cases families do not realise that the meals are now free,” he said. “We are going to do work around that to try to increase the numbers.”
One of the biggest increases in school dinner uptake was in Renfrewshire, where 71 per cent now take a meal at school compared to 36 per cent a year ago. Another big rise was in Falkirk, where 80 per cent take a school dinner compared to 54 per cent last year.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “It is heartening to see uptake increasing around Scotland in the first months of the universal offer and this looks set to improve as parents and pupils become familiar with the new menus being served.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS