Education (Scotland) Bill.

Part of Supplementary Vote of Credit, 1941. – in the House of Commons on 16th December 1941.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

There are few immediate and practical measures in public health which I could commend to the House with better heart and greater enthusiasm than this little Measure which is now before the House. I have long been interested in the issue of school feeding for children, and my first recollectable conference on the subject was at our school board many years ago. I can recollect the efforts made by the great Conservative Minister for Education, Sir John Gorst, and my friend Mr. Martin Haddow, of Glasgow, in endeavouring to arouse public opinion as to the waste and folly of attempting to teach children who, while they were sitting on the school benches, were under-nourished. Then in 1930 I and some others obtained a grant from the Empire Marketing Board of £5,000, and we received also £2,000 from the Miners' Distress Fund in Scotland. We added those two sums together and started a milk feeding experiment in Lanarkshire, with 20,000 school children. As a result of that experiment it was proved beyond the shadow of doubt that a regular course of milk was beneficial to the health of the school children in every way. In the Lanarkshire experiment boys of 11 years of age, after receiving a milk ration during four months, more than doubled the weight increase as compared with boys who got no milk. At the same time girls of the same age also more than doubled their weight increase as compared with those who got no milk. In one case the increase of weight was 12 0zs. and the other 24 0zs. That was the foundations of the milk-in-schools scheme under which to-day children get one-third of a pint of milk a day and, if they are necessitous, get it free. In October, 1931, the last date for which I have figures, 448,000 children in Scotland were getting milk in schools. That meant 59 per cent. of the total number of children on the school rolls. We have not hitherto been able to operate the milk scheme in areas not covered by the Milk Marketing Board, such as the Western Isles, but these are now to be included.

The Government are exceedingly anxious to make a big new advance in nutrition. I believe that the science of nutrition will do for public health what sanitation did for it in the last half-century. We believe that school feeding is highly desirable for many other reasons. First, there are many instances of children, especially in the winter-time, making a journey to and from their homes for a midday meal. Perhaps they get wet, they sit in their wet clothes all the afternoon, and that is bad for them, as it is favourable to the production of respiratory diseases. Secondly, we have now very many instances in which mothers are out at war work and are unable to cook for children who go to school. Thirdly, the cost of school feeding, done on a collective basis, is very low; and it will conserve foodstuffs. In Glasgow, for example, they get a substantial two-course meal for 4½d.; in Edinburgh a two-course meal is supplied for 4d., in Dundee for 4d., and in Aberdeen for 3d. The results of the experiment in Aberdeen have been indeed remarkable. The teachers there are able to detect from their appearance the children who are having their midday school meal as healthier and brighter in appearance in every way.

If I might utter a little word of warning, it is this: that we do not want to begin a school feeding system on an extravagant high-charge basis. Some places are charging 5d. for a two-course meal. We do not want school authorities to make profits out of these school feeding arrangements and, from those profits, begin a system of subsidising sports funds for the schools. That has not been unknown. We are anxious that this nutrition experiment shall be a nutrition experiment, that it will be a definite advance in human well-being. With the Minister of Food helping in every possible way, and the Scottish Education Department prepared to do anything and everything in its power to ' develop the school meals system, I hope that before long we shall be able to report that 20 per cent. of the children attending our schools have a hot midday meal. I go further, and I suggest that we ought to be doing everything we can to encourage the teaching of cookery in our schools. It is more necessary than ever that we should do so, and especially in the last two years of the child's school life. [Interruption.] We hope to reach the highest possible standard, the best possible nutritional standard, at the lowest possible price, for the maximum number of children.

The London County Council had a remarkable experiment with what is called the Oslo meal. They tried it for three months, and the percentage of increase in height which boys who took the Oslo meal showed over boys who did not get the Oslo meal in that period was no less than 71 per cent., and in weight, 82 per cent. The girls who took the Oslo meal increased in height over their friends who did not take the Oslo meal 109 per cent., and in weight 40 per cent. The Oslo meal system, where we have tried it in Scotland, has not commended itself entirely to the school child. He regards a vegetarian diet of that kind as not very appetising. In Aberdeen, for example, our experience has been that children did not willingly take the Oslo meal, and in any case the Oslo meal must be abandoned at the moment, as we have not the necessary materials to provide it. But all those things are being watched, they are all being organised, and I do hope, I believe, that as a result of this experiment of school feeding on a massed scale we shall be able to make a tremendous improvement in the health and well-being of our child population.

I have said that we aim at 20 per cent. That is a big figure for some counties. Op the other hand, it is what Ayrshire has already done; it is what Stirlingshire is almost doing; and the increases which are taking place in some other counties are getting an increased momentum week by week and month by month. To facilitate the rapid expansion of the school meal service, we have, as from 1st October last, increased the rate of grant to local authorities by 10 per cent., with a proviso that the grant shall not exceed 95 per cent. of the total expenditure, nor fall below 70 per cent.—the lowest percentage grant in any area. In addition to that, there will be the rural areas, where it will be difficult to organise a cooked meal service, authority has been given by the Ministry of Food for the supply of certain rationed foods for school children in those areas, and an improved scale of allowances for children in those areas has been announced.

Why is this Bill necessary? The aim of the Government is to prevent malnutrition, instead of trying to remedy it after unmistakable symptoms have appeared. We desire that where school meals are provided, they shall be available for all school children, whether the parents can afford to pay or not. Education authorities in Scotland, it is true, have full power under the Act of 1908 to provide meals for children whose parents can afford to pay, but they are not permitted to supply food to necessitous children unless it is shown that the individual child is, by reason of lack of food unable to take full advantage of the education provided. The law therefore, in our view, must be amended if the Government's policy is to be carried out. As for standards of what is malnutrition, no one knows how you can have such standards. In the Department of Health Report for 1938, Members will find, on page 86, figures for three counties contiguous to one another, where the percentage of children reported as under average varies from, in the case of one county 19 per cent., to nought per cent. in the next county, and 1 per cent. in the next. Obviously, standards of malnutrition must vary very considerably. We are exceedingly anxious to have local authorities given power to feed all children, whether they are necessitous, whether they are under-nourished, or not. The question of whether payments can be recovered from the parents is one for the education authority afterwards.

There is another respect in which the law requires amendment. Even when the child is shown to be in need of food, the education authority is required to go through an elaborate procedure before it can supply meals, except as a temporary expedient. The authority must summon either or both of the parents to appear before it, to give an explanation of the child's condition. If the explanation is not forthcoming, or if it is not satisfactory, and the authority finds that the child's condition is due to neglect, it is required to send a copy of its findings to the parents and a. copy to the Procurator-Fiscal with a view to prosecution. If the authority, or, in the event of a prosecution, the sheriff, is satisfied that the parent is not able, by reason of poverty or of ill-health, to supply the child with sufficient or proper food, the authority has next to be satisfied that the necessities cannot be provided by voluntary agencies. Not until the authority is satisfied on that score can it provide free meals to a necessitous child. Obviously, that sort of procedure cannot be tolerated at this time. By Section 6 of the Education (Scotland) Act, 1908, authorities are "cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd." They render themselves liable to surcharges if they feed children gratuitously without going through this alarming catalogue of difficulties. There is one case of a county in which children were given free meals, a ratepayer took exception to the expenditure, and the authority was found liable to a surcharge of no less than £69,000.