Concern over ‘postcode lottery’ on uptake of free school meals

Free school meals.
Free school meals.
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There is a postcode lottery in Scotland on the uptake of free school meals prompting a warning that “universal provision does not have a universal reach.”

The uptake ranges from 100per cent in many schools around the country to fewer than a quarter, a major report today finds.

And there are concerns that some schools are rejecting “practical steps” which could help improve the uptake of school meals, according to the research published by the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit at Glasgow Caledonian University. It found that almost 100,000 free school meals are served to those entitled to on a typical day. But 24 per cent of pupils who registered for free school meals in primary schools don’t take it. In secondaries, the figure is 40 per cent and 33 per cent in special schools.

“The aspirations of the school catering service to increase reach and uptake of school meals does not always align with school management, the report states.

“Indeed, some school management reject some of the practical steps required to achieve this (eg preventing food purchased outside being consumed in school dining halls; introducing staggered lunch breaks to extend capacity, etc.)’.

“Furthermore, the rights of pupils (particularly senior pupils) to choose what and where to consume food at lunchtime - which is supported by many school managers and pupils alike - may not always be conducive to maximising uptake of school meals.”

There is a “wide divergence” in the uptake of free school meals across the country, particularly in secondaries.

It is highest in mainland rural and affluent areas, with update in the Borders almost double that of South Lanarkshire. Many secondary schools, such as Dunblane High in Stirling and Dalkeith High in Midlothian had 100 per cent take-up for their free school meals. At the other end of the scale, Stewarton in South Lanarkshire had a take-up of just 24 per cent.

Jayne Jones, chair of the Association of Facilities Managers (ASSIST FM) which represents school meals providers said the situation must improve.

“For many school pupils the only hot meal they will have each day is at school,” she said.

“However, there are areas that we need to explore further, such as what happens outside the school gate, as well as the support we need internally within schools to achieve better uptakes, especially for pupils who are entitled to free school meal provision.”