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Free school meals announced for 90,000 more pupils

Holyrood will deliver on the SNP’s manifesto pledge to give free school meals to pupils in primary four and five, no matter how much their families earn

More than 90,000 children in Scotland will be entitled to free school meals by January 2022, the education secretary has announced, regardless of their background.

The Scottish government will extend the universal free school lunches programme – currently only available to children in funded early learning, funded childcare and primary years 1-3 – to state school pupils in primary four and five in a bid to slash child hunger.

“Free school meals are a vital support to thousands of children and young people across the country,” said Shirley-Anne Somerville, Scottish education secretary, “ensuring that children have access to a free, healthy and nutritious meal every day they are in school and are ready to engage in learning.

“The provision of £49.75 million in new funding to local authorities demonstrates our support for the health and wellbeing of children and young people and our commitment to reduce the impact of poverty on thousands of families across the country,” she added.

The free meals will be available to primary four children from the start of the new term this August, and to primary five by early next year.

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The SNP pledged to give free school meals to all primary school pupils if reelected in May’s election. All remaining primary school children, in P6 and P7, will be entitled to free school meals by August 2022 at the earliest, according to a Holyrood statement.

More than 146,200 primary school aged children in Scotland are eligible for free lunches under current rules, though there is significant discrepancy between who is eligible and who claims them, with only 40,000 kids registered for free school meals in 2018.

The announcement was welcomed by anti-poverty campaigners including the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, who said it was “good news for thousands of children living in poverty but not currently getting a free school meal.

“For hard pressed families the cost of school lunches can be a huge financial burden,” a spokesperson said. “[The] universal approach increases take up, and boosts health and education.”

The Scottish government also committed to rolling out targeted food support for primary and secondary pupils in low-income families during school holidays, starting in July and supporting an estimated 145,000 children.

Each local authority will decide on what kind of support should be provided in its area, likely choosing between giving families cash payments, food parcels or supermarket vouchers.

“Councils across Scotland have long been committed to delivering healthy free school meals to eligible children and young people,” said Councillor Stephen McCabe, from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. “We are pleased that this commitment can be further expanded upon.

“Local authorities will continue to work hard to ensure that children and young people have access to healthy and nourishing meals so that they are fully able to learn, play, and engage with their peers and communities.”

Free school meals are also available to older children in Scotland if they or their families receive one of the mainstream benefits, such as universal credit or income support, or if their family’s immigrations status means they have no recourse to public funds and are facing hardship.

Children at state schools in England can currently claim free school meals regardless of their family’s income if they are in reception, year one or year two, with similar rules in Wales.

Campaigners including Marcus Rashford have long called for free school meals provision across Britain to be extended, in particular to all children whose families claim universal credit. In all three nations, a family’s income – if they receive universal credit – must be below roughly £7,400 per year if their older child is to access free school meals.

The strict eligibility criteria could be blocking two in five children living in poverty from getting free lunches, Child Poverty Action Group research showed.

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