Free School Meals

The Scottish Free School Meals Campaign has enjoyed real success over the last 12 months. In early 2014, following sustained activity led by CPAG in Scotland along with Campaign members, the Scottish Government announced that as of January 2015, all children in Primary 1, 2 and 3 in Scotland will be entitled to a healthy free school lunch.

This statement was accompanied by a commitment from the Scottish Government that it will spend £55 million (£13m in year in 2014-15 and £42m in 2015-16) ensuring its policy becomes a reality.

The legal background

The announcement that children in P1, P2 and P3 are to be entitled to free school lunches from January 2015 was swiftly followed by an amendment to the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act. The Act now gives the Scottish Government the power to require local authorities to provide fee school meals to children in selected year groups (rather than just to children whose families are in receipt of specific benefits, as had previously been the case). This means that - if it chose to do so - the Scottish Government could pass regulations requiring local authorities to provide free school meals to children in P1, P2 and P3 (and in any other chosen year groups).

To date, however, the Scottish Government has chosen not to use this power to pass regulations. It is of the belief that its policy commitment and the additional funding provided will be enough to ensure that local authorities provide free school lunches for children in P1, P2 and P3 from January 2015.

Still hungry….

The Scottish Free School Meals Campaign is delighted with progress to date. However, much remains to be done.

While we appreciate that the Scottish Government anticipates the support and co-operation of local authorities in rolling out universal free school lunches there are strong benefits to creating clear legislative entitlement. These include the following:

  • It will immediately relieve stress in hard pressed households by ensuring that parents are confident their children will receiving a free healthy school lunch wherever they live. For example a family with two young children will be able to budget for up to an extra £685 from January 2015[i].
  • It will put eligibility for free school meals for P1-P3 on the same legal footing as existing entitlement to free school lunches. Eligibility for families in receipt of a range of social security benefits and tax credits, for example, is already laid down in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 and subsequent regulations[ii].
  • It will provide a means of holding local authorities to account if, for any reason, they fail to implement the Scottish Government’s policy commitment. This is necessary because, despite a commitment to provide a free healthy lunch to all P1 to P3 pupils being contained in the 2007 Concordat, the policy was not delivered.

For this reason, CPAG and other members of the Scottish Free School Meals Campaign will continue to work in the months to come to ensure that regulations are passed by January 2015, guaranteeing that children in P1, P2 and P3 get the healthy, free lunches they are entitled to.

Why are universal free school meals so important?

The universal provision of free, healthy school meals has proven benefits in relation to uptake, family budgets, educational attainment and addressing inequality.

Universal provision boosts take up of healthy lunches

The Scottish Government’s pilot trials of universal provision of free school meals to all P1 to P3 pupils in 2007/8 demonstrated a substantial effect on take up of school meals, increasing overall take up by 22 percentage points (from 53% to 75%). Furthermore, even amongst children already entitled to free school meals, take-up rose by 4.4 percentage points, and in some areas by up to 8.5 percentage points[iii].

Further analysis of the pilot attributed the rise in take-up of free school meals by those who had always entitled to a “positive peer effect”. They concluded that children became more likely to use their entitlement to free school meals “because a greater proportion of other students in the school were doing so.” [iv]

Universal provision supports family budgets and home life

Evaluation of the Scottish pilots also pointed to a positive impact on family budgets and the home environment. There was, the evaluation concluded, “evidence that the trial had impacted positively on the home environment of pupils,” and that “the simple benefit of increasing disposable income was particularly evident amongst parents with more than one child.”[v]

Free school meals can increase disposable income significantly given that a family with two young children spend approximately £685 a year of school lunches alone[vi].

Universal provision boosts learning and attainment

As well as increasing take up of healthy lunches and providing relief to family budgets, free school meals impact positively on children’s learning experience. Evaluation of a free school meals pilot for primary school children over two years in Hull found a “significant impact in all areas of children's schooling...behaviour, social relationships, health and learning”,[vii] whilst more recent evaluation of the provision of free school meals to all primary pupils in Durham and Newham found that “offering free school meals to all primary school pupils increased attainment in disadvantaged areas.”[viii]

Universal provision is progressive and helps tackle inequality

Modelling conducted by economists at Dundee University concluded that the current system of means testing in relation to free school meals “fails to deliver welfare to the poorest in society”. The results show that universal free school meals would not waste money by benefiting better off families at the expense of those facing poverty. Only when entitlement is extended to the richest 10% of families is there no additional benefit to less well-off children[ix].

The commitment to universal free school lunches in P1 to P3 was secured with the support of:

‘I had to go and pick him up from the school one day because he had been sick. Just before lunchtime. He never had any dinner money left. And I said to him “what’s happening? What’s going on?” and he said “I’m getting bullied because I’m poor and I’ve not got any money for a bacon roll”. It’s hard enough as it is. He got bullied right though primary school ... and I thought “I cannae bear the thought of you being here and not enjoying it and just getting bullied because you haven’t got money for a bacon roll”.

“We were in the lunch queue one day and my pal says to me “ You can just by my lunch today. It’s my parents that pay for your free school meals anyway”.

[i] Based on a family with two children in P1-P3, paying £1.80 each for a school lunch

[ii] Including, for example, the Education (School Meals) (Scotland) Regulations 2003, the Education (School Meals) (Scotland) Regulations 2009, the Education (School Lunches) Amendment Regulations 2013




[vi] Based on a family with two children in P1-P3, paying £1.80 each for a school lunch

[vii] Prof. Derek Colquhoun, Hull Uni,,,1995361,00.html


[ix] C.J. Morelli and P. Seaman, 2010, Devolution as a policy crucible: the case of universal free school meals, Poverty & Public Policy, Vol. 2: Iss. 1, pp.139-61, DOI: 10.2202/1944-2858.1032