SIC committee still keen to see free school meal criteria changed despite budget warning

SHETLAND Islands Council’s education and families committee has voiced its disagreement with a recommendation not to press ahead with a proposal to realign the criteria for free school meals amid budget worries.

No final decision was made at Tuesday’s meeting, however, as the matter will now go to the policy and resources committee and full council later this month.

Councillors on the education and families committee were supportive of the proposal, initiated by the group in November, to align free school meals to the clothing grant criteria, and increase clothing grant payments by 50 per cent.

The view was that this would give support to more families in need during the cost of living crisis.

But a report to the committee exploring the implications of the proposals recommended not go ahead with them – because it would incur further unsustainable draws from financial reserves.

Council leader Emma Macdonald warned at Tuesday’s meeting that while she supported the idea, it would risk less money being available for something else in the children’s services directorate, which is over budget this year.

The report said increasing the clothing grant in addition to realigning free school meal eligibility would result in a total maximum financial impact to the council of £111,366.

This includes factors less of income from meals paid for in school, and the extra cost of food which would be provided to pupils.

SIC children’s services director Helen Budge.

But children’s services director Helen Budge stressed that it is unclear how many youngsters who would be newly eligible for free school meals under the proposals would actually eat in the school, suggesting the cost to the council could be lower.

She said uptake in secondaries has been around 42 per cent recently.

At the moment only early years and primary pupils up to P5 receive universal free meals in Scotland, with the Scottish Government’s roll-out to P6 and P7 currently delayed.

Outside of this families have to be on a certain income before they can be eligible for free school meals.

Councillors Ian Scott and Stephen Leask previously failed in a bid to introduce universal free school meals for every pupil at school in Shetland.

As of 30 January there were 360 pupils accessing free school meals and 514 receiving the clothing grant, which gives yearly payments of between £100 and £180 to families. The criteria for both can be complex, but they include earned income and benefits.

Aligning the free school meal threshold to that of the clothing grant would mean that 186 more pupils would become eligible for no-cost food.

At the moment around 90 of these can already receive universal free meals as they are in early learning or primary one to five.

At Tuesday’s meeting Lerwick South member Neil Pearson said, in his view, the way forward was simple – to reject the recommendations in the report.

His move was supported by his colleagues, and the views of the committee will be passed on to policy and resources members on 13 February.

The committee also formally noted that the idea of altering the threshold for school meals and clothing grants would require further investigation and clarity from national bodies.

“We were aware that there was going to be financial implications when we made this decision in the first place. My mind has not been changed on this at all,” Pearson said.

“I think we need to be doing something to support our community.”

Leader Macdonald said she “very much supports the principles” behind the proposals.

But she said “it will mean we will not be able to deliver on some other areas within that directorate”.

“As we have been told very clearly, we cannot continue to draw from our reserves unsustainably, so in my view we have to be very clear that this is not additional money – it’s making sure we make different choices with the money we have.”

Macdonald highlighted the future funding gap in the 2023/24 budget, which is due to be set in the coming weeks.

She referenced how there is still not clarity as to whether the council’s ask to the Scottish Government for running internal ferries will be met in full – with initial figures suggesting a £5 million gap.

The leader added that the recommendations made in the report by council officials were technically the right thing to do, because “financially we can’t afford to do this”.

Meanwhile Lerwick North and Bressay member Stephen Leask highlighted that he felt the issue at hand was more of a “broader, political subject for government”.

Shetland News