There was a welcome announcement by the Scottish Government yesterday on the extension of universal free school meals to all children in Primary 1, 2 and 3. I was a signatory, on behalf of UNISON Scotland, to the call by a range of education organisations for the Government to use the Barnett consequentials of the similar decision in England in this way. UNISON Scotland has a long-standing commitment to universal free school meals for all children.
The pilot trials show that universal provision significantly improves the take up of school meals, even amongst those already entitled to them, due to a positive peer effect. It also boosts learning and attainment and helps tackle health inequality. A study undertaken at Dundee University concluded that the current system of means testing, “fails to deliver welfare to the poorest in society”. While it clearly does have a positive impact on family budgets, I regard this as a secondary consideration because there may be other, possibly better, ways of using the budget in this regard.
School meals are therefore a service that benefits from universality. I accept that is not the case for all services as we have always had a mixed economy. Of course, despite the spin, neither does the Scottish Government, as they don’t apply the principle consistently. Access to justice being a good example of universality being abandoned when it suits them.
A point lost in yesterday’s debate is the state of the current school meals service. UNISON Scotland surveyed members working in catering only recently and found that 54% say there have been major or severe cuts in the last 3-4 years. A total of 49% expect further major or even severe cuts to their service. Top concerns are increased workload, reduced staffing and the impact of cuts on the service. Many believe service levels are only being maintained because staff are working beyond the call of duty, under high pressure, with heavy workloads. This is also reflected in the 23 improvement notices served on school kitchens across Scotland last year.
UNISON would also support a much larger expansion of quality childcare provision than that announced yesterday, welcome though it is. The strange decision to use a devolved power to illustrate the possibilities of independence inevitably creates a political rammie over spending priorities. However, I am not convinced that the case is made that one is necessarily more effective in tackling poverty than the other - so spreading the jam is not an unreasonable policy. Equally, the argument that further childcare provision is dependent on tax powers is very weak. If we followed that principle, Holyrood would do nothing to promote employment because the tax revenue doesn’t directly come to Scotland.
So while we should welcome yesterday’s announcement for school meals and childcare, let’s remember current services are under considerable pressure and struggling to deliver a quality service. While politicians love to announce new services – the existing provision has to be maintained as well.