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Universal free school meals for primary school children is not perhaps the most headline grabbing achievement of devolution but in terms of what it means for children’s health and educational prospects it should be right up there with abolishing university fees and the smoking ban.

From last week all primary fives across Scotland, regardless of their parents financial status, will be able to access a free school meal. Last August all primary fours were also brought into the scheme. That means that 90,000 extra children can now get a healthy free lunch.

The Scottish Government did commit itself to rolling out universal free meals to all primary children by August 2022 but that commitment was dropped during last month’s budget. Now ministers say the policy will be implemented by the end of this parliamentary term.

It’s just another twist in the journey of this policy since the Scottish Parliament came into existence. What is undeniable is that those who set out universal free school meals as an ambition many years ago have won the political argument. The disagreements are now over timescales and budgets.

During the first eight years of Holyrood, the Labour/Lib Dem Scottish Executive set itself against universal free school meals. Along with the Conservatives, it voted down a members bill by a Scottish Socialist MSP that would have provided all Scottish primary kids with a free lunch. The party did however promise to offer more targeted support for less well off children if it won the upcoming May election. Labour, of course, lost to the SNP in the party’s first ever Holyrood election success.

The SNP had included the introduction of universal free school meals in its manifesto. But it took a long time for the policy to get off the ground and it wasn’t until January 2014 that what was now called The Scottish Government announced that all primary children in years 1 to 3 would get a free lunch at school.

The move was greeted with approval from a host of child welfare groups, trade unions and teachers themselves. There were a few grumbles about the long delay in getting the policy finally started but most agreed it was better late than never.

It’s testament to the complete victory of the political argument that every party has now adopted the policy as its official position with some parties now arguing for further expansion. It can also be seen as a true victory for devolution. You only have to look at the UK government’s behaviour towards targeted meals for children during the pandemic to see where their priorities lie. The fact that it took a young footballer in Marcus Rashford to shame the Tories into some kind of action on this issue is disgraceful.

But aside from the political journey the policy has had over the years at Holyrood what benefits do universal free school meals bring?

A study from Sweden’s Lund University produced last August found that decades of universal free school meals in that country produced profound health and economic benefits: children would grow taller, live longer healthier lives and would have better more highly paid careers. The effects on children from poorer families was even more marked. Petter Lundborg, co-author of the study stated, “Today, we take school lunches for granted in Sweden. But the fact is, it was a very conscious investment when Sweden introduced free lunches in the 1940s.”

This has always been the argument used by those advocating the policy in Scotland. This is not a hand out or a something for nothing culture but a sound, practical investment in our children.

Neil Cowan from The Poverty Alliance says that the political consensus around universal free school meals for primary kids is proof positive that all parties recognise that child poverty is on the rise in Scotland, as it is throughout the UK.

“It’s evident to everyone that many families are poorer now than they were 10 years ago” he says. “Universal Free School meals is an excellent policy that helps mitigate some of the worse effects of child poverty. Its not a solution in itself but its a very important measure.”

Cowan believes the health benefits and educational benefits are undeniable. “Many kids come to school hungry and hungry children cant concentrate properly. The other important thing about this policy is its universality. It removes the stigma and that more than outweighs any benefits that would come through a more targeted rollout.”

However, he believes there is still much to be done. “Obviously it’s a disappointment that the government has rowed back on its committed for this to be available from P1 to P7 by August this year. I would urged ministers to stick to that promise and get things clarified ASAP. Ultimately I would like to see universal free school meals being made available to children in secondary schools as well.”

Blog by Peter Henderson, Thompsons Scotland.

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