Scotland politics

Free school meals for primary one to three pupils in Scotland

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Media captionChildren in primaries one to three who returned to school today, are tucking into a free lunch.

All school children from primary one to three are now entitled to a free school meal, the Scottish government has announced.

The £95m initiative covering state schools is expected to save families at least £330 a year.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched the policy at her old primary school in Ayrshire.

She said making free school meals available on a universal basis was the "right thing to do".

The policy has been supported by unions and poverty campaigners, but Scottish Labour said the change would only benefit the country's wealthier families as children from poorer backgrounds already qualified for free school meals.

The Scottish government said the policy - for 135,000 children - would benefit pupils and their families alike.

Universal benefit?

Jamie McIvor, education correspondent

The move enjoys broad support within Scotland but some are bound to wonder whether providing free meals to children from comfortably off families - and not just to those from families who will notice the saving - is really the best use of scarce resources.

This touches on the wider debate about so-called universal benefits - whether money should be targeted only at those who need a service the most or spent providing a service which is free at the point of use for all who want it.

The same broad argument covers issues as diverse as free bus travel for pensioners and the abolition of prescription charges four years ago.

The challenge is to demonstrate to sceptics that there is a benefit to society as a whole from the policy.

One argument for extending free school meals was that it would abolish any stigma for children from low income families.

In practice, cashless payment systems have helped to do this already and the debate has moved into other areas, especially the benefits to public health and children's education.

Supporters argue that children with a regular healthy meal were more likely to be able to concentrate, get better academic results and were less likely to be obese.

The government is giving councils extra money to help cover the cost of the extra free meals.

But as the money is not ring-fenced, critics will be watching closely to make sure the cash actually goes on the meals. Their fear would be that free meals either prove a drain on other parts of the local budget - or that the commitment is met in letter but not in spirit with some of the money going elsewhere.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme, Ms Sturgeon said: "The cost is £70.5m in revenue terms over the next two years and we have also made just short of £25m available to local authorities in capital to enable them to make changes to their dining room facilities and such like."

The first minister defended the fact that children from wealth-off backgrounds would be entitled to a free lunch.

"By removing the stigma created by means testing you increase uptake amongst children from the poorest families," she said.

"We also know there is a significant increase in child poverty amongst families who are not on benefits, are in work but are struggling to make ends meet."

She said a policy "of a universal nature" would also help these families.

She added: "Then there's the link with learning and attainment. The evaluation of our pilot project says that free school meals had a positive impact on all aspects of a child's schooling."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "The new year will set off to a great start for the 135,000 pupils who will benefit from a healthy and nourishing free school meal each and every day of the school week.

"This move, delivered as a result of Liberal Democrats in the UK government, will put more money back in parents' pockets and give kids a healthy lunch in the social environment of the school canteen."

But Scottish Labour's education spokesman Iain Gray said: "Children from poorer families already qualified for free school meals. By definition the extension will not benefit those families at all, while the wealthiest families in Scotland will be celebrating the news that the Scottish government's proposals will save them £330 a year.

"Free school meals are a good thing in general, but whilst local authority education budgets face tight financial pressures it is important to note that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

"It will be those most in need that pay the price in cuts to local authority services and increased charges for things like care for people with disabilities."

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