P1-3 pupils in Scotland to get free school meals

school dinner The Scottish government matched a plan being introduced in England

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All Scottish P1-P3 pupils will get free school meals from January 2015, First Minister Alex Salmond has announced.

He said the move, affecting 165,000 youngsters, would boost health and was worth £330 a year for each child to families.

The move matches a plan being introduced in England, in September this year.

Opposition parties accused the Scottish government of playing catch-up, and taking credit for Westminster policies.

The first minister also told the Scottish Parliament that free childcare would be expanded to every two-year-old from a workless household in Scotland by August, affecting about 8,400 youngsters.

Mr Salmond said a further extension of the policy to reach 15,400 two-year-olds by August 2015 would see Scotland delivering 80 million hours of childcare to pre-school children, which he said was the greatest amount in the UK.

The free meals announcement on Tuesday came after UK ministers announced plans to offer pupils in the first three years of primary school in England a free cooked lunch.

Start Quote

We have a Westminster policy delivered with Westminster money, and the SNP playing catch-up but trying to claim the credit”

End Quote Ruth Davidson Scottish Conservative leader

Scottish ministers followed suit, partly by using extra money going to Scotland, through the Barnett Formula, as a consequence of the English plan.

Mr Salmond said the Scottish government announcements would bring improvements, but fell short of the childcare revolution which Scotland needed.

Ahead of the independence referendum on 18 September, the Scottish government said all three and four-year-olds, and vulnerable two-year-olds, would get 1,140 hours of childcare a year by the end of the first parliament, in the event of a "Yes" vote.

But opposition parties said SNP ministers had the devolved powers to realise their childcare plans now.

Mr Salmond told MSPs: "We need to create a tax welfare and childcare system that doesn't plunge children into poverty, as the UK government is doing, that puts us on a par with the best childcare systems in the world.

Alex Salmond's critics suggested his enthusiasm for free school meals was driven by external factors: the availability of cash from the Treasury as a consequence of the previous announcement of a comparable scheme for England; a desire to cosset parents - and especially mothers - with an eye to the referendum.

The first minister insisted he was persuaded by the advantages of the policy: it encouraged uptake including among those who were nominally eligible at present; it improved the health and wellbeing of youngsters and thus their educational attainment.

"That is why the future of Scotland's children is the future of Scotland, and why Scotland's future is an independent one."

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said the free school meals plan was promised by the SNP in 2007, but never delivered, adding: "Now it has been reprised, because the UK government has acted on it and provided the money."

She said of Mr Salmond's childcare vision: "What he had was an opportunity to show his new-found commitment to childcare was more than a referendum ploy and start delivering for working families and children now."

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, added: "A cynic might say that the SNP, having promised the earth and failed to deliver for years, has only now re-discovered its commitment to free school meals because the coalition government is delivering it.

"Today, we have a Westminster policy delivered with Westminster money, and the SNP playing catch-up but trying to claim the credit."

From Democracy Live: Alex Salmond announced his plan in parliament

However, the free school meal and childcare expansion plan, being funded at a total cost of £114m over two years, was welcomed by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, a long-time campaigner on the issue.

"The best educational investment we can make is in two-year-olds, because that can change their life," he said.

"If we're going to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty we can make efforts at later stages - we can do stuff about youth unemployment, we can try and improve life chances through schools - but the best impact we can make is in doing it at the age of two."

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group, told BBC Scotland the school meals announcement was long overdue, adding: "The pressures on families and their ability to support their children are extraordinary, so providing a free school lunch to children in primary one to primary three is a very immediate, direct and well-evidenced way of supporting families at a time of increasing pressures."

Currently, 33,000 P1-P3 pupils in Scotland are eligible for free school meals.

Later, a vote in the Scottish Parliament on a motion confirming the government's commitment to increasing free school meals and the provision of early learning and childcare was passed by 67 votes to 46.

Labour, which voted against the motion, sought an amendment which stated that progress in tackling child poverty had stalled in Scotland under the current administration.

It called on the Scottish government to take action "to deliver for children now, including providing 50% of two-year-olds with 600 hours of free early learning and care in 2014".

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