The Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit at Glasgow Caledonian University has published a research report to provide a ‘state of the nation’ summary on the take up of free school meals in Scotland.
Research for the report, which is titled ‘Are pupils being served?’, was commissioned by the Association of Facilities Managers (ASSIST FM), whose members include every Scottish Local Authority School Meals provider.
The specific objectives of the report were to identify the extent to which trends and tendencies in the consumption of school meals in Scotland are universal across Scotland; appraise the extent to which free school meals is delivering in-kind support to reduce household expenditure in Scotland; appraise the existing evidence base for school meals in Scotland, and specify priorities for future research on free school meals in Scotland.
The report showed that on a typical school day, almost 350,000 school meals are served in Scotland and 51% of school pupils take a school meal every day. On a typical day, the majority of pupils registered for free school meals in primary, secondary and special schools typically present for this meal (76%, 60% and 77%, respectively). This still means that 24%, 40% and 33% of pupils respectively are entitled to a free school meal and are still not taking up their allowance.
The report also showed that nearly 100,000 school meals per day are served to pupils who are entitled to a free school meal on account of their family being eligible for social security. It was also confirmed that uptake of free school meals was higher in primary than secondary schools, and that within each school age-stage, uptake was higher in smaller schools and schools serving areas that were more rural in character.
It is clear from the research undertaken that there is not an alignment of priorities among key stakeholders. As Professor McKendrick and colleagues advise in the report, “the aspirations of the school catering service to increase reach and uptake of school meals does not always align with school management; indeed, some school management reject some of the practical steps required to achieve this (e.g. 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.”
The research also shows that there is also growing anecdotal evidence that new school build and redevelopment has reduced the capacity to deliver school meals at lunchtime. There is also anecdotal evidence of variable practice in whether school space beyond the dining hall is being used as ‘lunch space’.
As for service delivery, the research points out that there is a need for further research into the way in which the spaces of schools are being used in conjunction with school meals provision.
The key finding from the research is that ‘Universal free school meal provision does not have a universal reach’.
There are several drivers to improve the effectiveness of school meals in Scotland. Key among these are the desire to tackle food security, remove classroom hunger, tackle income poverty, and tackle wider problems associated with poverty. Debates also focus on whether there is adequate infrastructure to deliver free school meals, the merits of universal versus targeted provision, stigma-free administration, and the affordability of school meals.
The report goes on to say that ‘free school meals can have a positive impact on pupils’ academic engagement and performance and have longer-term positive health outcomes. However, socio-cultural pressures shape children’s food choices and young people may not choose school meals over more familiar or attractive alternatives. Although the introduction of free school meals could be viewed as a success, it alone is insufficient to achieve what Scotland wants school food to deliver.’
“This report raises some very important issues for school meals services,” says Jayne Jones, National Chair of ASSIST FM. “All of our members are dedicated, as local authority providers, to ensuring that children receive a healthy nutritious meal at lunchtime. For many school pupils the only hot meal they will have each day is at school. 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. We hope to be working with Glasgow Caledonian University on a further piece of research which will look in more detail at how we can improve these figures and help children in poverty across Scotland.”