Free School Meals (Income Threshold)

Portfolio Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:00 pm on 16 May 2024.

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Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour 2:00, 16 May 2024

To ask the Scottish Government when it will next review the income threshold for free school meals for those pupils not in a year where provision is currently free. (S6O-03442)

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Universal free school meals are available to all pupils in primaries 1 to 5 and in special schools. We remain committed to further expanding universal free school meals to all pupils in primaries 6 and 7.

For year groups outwith the current universal offer, we last amended the eligibility criteria on 1 April 2024, following the latest increases to the national living wage. The eligibility criteria were amended for families in receipt of either tax credits or universal credit.

The Scottish Government continues to regularly monitor the eligibility criteria for free school meals to take account of changes in circumstances, such as further increases in the level of the national living wage.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

There is not one Labour member who does not share the First Minister’s priority of ending child poverty. However, the reality is that, even allowing for what the cabinet secretary has said, in Scotland some children are still going hungry. Key stakeholders, including Aberlour, have argued that we could make further changes to the income threshold per pupil in years where the provision is not free, which would improve even further families’ access to free school meals. Will the Government commit to looking at how much further it could increase the threshold so that more families would be able to access that provision?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Ms Mochan might know that, yesterday, along with her colleague Monica Lennon, I attended a round-table meeting on free school meals provision. It is worth while reminding the chamber that Scotland has the most generous offer of free school meal provision across these islands. However, Ms Mochan raises a hugely important point. The Government regularly updates the eligibility criteria that we set for free school meals, and we last did so in April. I would be more than happy to discuss the matter with officials, in recognition of the pivotal role that free school meal provision plays in helping to tackle child poverty.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

While we are discussing free school meals, will the cabinet secretary consider providing morning activities with breakfast as a worthwhile investment against the costs of issues such as poor physical and mental health, attainment and behaviour, and hunger? Might she even consider a pilot scheme on that subject?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I recognise Brian Whittle’s clear interest in the area, and we have discussed it at length in the chamber on a number of occasions. The connection between nutrition and physical activity is hugely important. Only today, we heard the First Minister talk about his own commitment to running and the impact that it has on his wellbeing. I would be more than happy to discuss the issue with Mr Whittle. I would have to look at my budget in relation to the opportunities that such a pilot might present. It is also worth while saying that the Government has a commitment to run a pilot in our secondary schools in relation to free school meals. We might be able to consider the member’s suggestion as part of that work.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

It is very welcome that the Scottish Government remains committed to expanding free school meal availability. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on what assessment the Scottish Government has made of the rate of uptake of free school meals? Can she say any more about what steps can be taken to maximise uptake?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Last year, our healthy living survey found that the percentage of eligible pupils who were taking a free school meal was 70.4 per cent, which represented an increase on the previous year. In addition, our pupil census data shows that more than half of all pupils are now registered for free school meals. However, we recognise that the percentage of pupils who are taking a meal is still lower than it was prior to the pandemic, when around 76 per cent of eligible pupils were recorded as taking free school meals.

The fall in uptake partly reflects some changes in eating habits that occurred during the pandemic, which resulted in more pupils taking packed lunches to school than was the case prior to lockdown. However, as I stated in my original answer to Carol Mochan, we remain absolutely committed to further expanding the provision of universal free school meals to all pupils in primaries 6 and 7.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

Question 8 has been withdrawn, so that concludes portfolio question time. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business to allow front-bench teams to change position, should they so wish.