Scotland politics

'Significant' rise in Scottish school meals uptake

school meal Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption There has been a general trend towards more children eating school meals

About three quarters of children in the early years of primary school are now taking school dinners, according to figures seen by BBC Scotland.

Since January, all children in Primaries 1, 2 and 3 have been entitled to a free school lunch.

As expected, in most places the number of children eating a school meal has increased significantly.

But some councils are disappointed the rise has not been even greater.

BBC Scotland asked Scotland's 32 councils how many Primary 1, 2 and 3 pupils were now taking advantage of free school meals and how this compared to the situation beforehand when most parents had to pay.

Not all councils were able to provide information publicly or give direct comparisons with previous years.

But the replies indicate that the take-up of free school dinners varies widely from area to area.


As a general rule, between seven and eight out of 10 pupils in Primaries 1, 2 and 3 are now taking a school dinner on a typical day.

One of the biggest increases was in Renfrewshire - 71% now take a school dinner compared to 36% a year ago.

Another big rise was in Falkirk, where 80% now take a school dinner compared to 54% last year.

North Ayrshire went up from 55% to 81%.

But some councils say they would like to see take-up increase even more.

In North Lanarkshire, the uptake is now 69% but the council says it hopes to drive this up to 75%.

Glasgow anticipated serving an extra 4,000 school meals a day - the actual rise is significantly lower than that at around 2,800.

The council says it will be looking at uptake in each school and will work with headteachers to ensure all parents and carers realise all P1-3 pupils are now entitled to a free meal.

Several pilot projects were run last year to try to see just what the extra demand would be. Schools and councils used them to try to work out whether extra staff, cutlery or kitchen equipment would be needed or whether to make practical changes such as extra sittings.

In Argyll and Bute the uptake is 77% - slightly higher than the pilots suggested.

There are a number of possible reasons why some children and parents are not taking up free school dinners.

For example, some children may have special nutritional requirements or be fussy eaters so go home on the days when the choices are unsuitable. School dinner menus are usually available in advance now.

Some parents may have misconceptions about school dinners based on their own experiences when they were younger.

And naturally some children might simply want to go home at lunchtime - especially if they live close to the school.

However, teachers will also be aware that if a child does not want to stay at school at lunchtime it could, in some cases, be a sign that they are unhappy at school or even being bullied.


Supporters of extending free school meals pointed to a number of potential advantages.

One argument is that a healthy lunch can help children perform better at school.

Another is that families on tight incomes, who were either ineligible for free school meals before or reluctant to claim them, could notice a real saving.

However, critics have warned of the risk that the scheme amounts to a "middle class benefit" and argue help should be targeted at those who need it the most.

Proving whether the policy actually improves children's health or school attainment will take many years.

Fourteen councils provided a comparison between the current figures and those from 2014.

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. The successful roll out of free school meals is a credit to schools and catering staff in councils around Scotland.

"Free school meals are saving eligible families at least £330 a year and universal availability for P1-3 will remove any possibility of free meals being a source of stigma during the first years of a child's schooling, as well as improving health and wellbeing, underlining our commitment to do all we can to support the development of our young people and tackle inequalities in our society."

Proportion of P1-3 pupils taking school meals on average weekday
Uptake now Uptake last year
Argyll and Bute 77% n/a
Dumfries and Galloway 72% 52.5%
East Ayrshire 72% 46% (all primary school years)
East Dunbartonshire 75-80% n/a
East Lothian 68% (Mon-Thu: Fridays are half days) n/a
East Renfrewshire 72% 51%
Falkirk 80% 54%
Midlothian 87% 60%
North Ayrshire 81% 55%
North Lanarkshire 69% 42%
Orkney 80-100% (varies widely between schools) 70%
Renfrewshire 71% 36%
South Ayrshire 75% 51%
West Dunbartonshire 72% 52.5%

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