From Friday 20th March 2020 at 5pm, schools across Scotland closed in an effort to tackle the spread of COVID-19. As part of its crisis response, the Scottish Government quickly enacted the COVID-19 (Scotland) Act 2020,[i] and also guidance measures to ensure children and young people continue to be supported and protected during lockdown and school closures.[ii][iii][iv] This includes providing replacements for free school meals (FSMs).
The sole criterion for eligibility to FSMs, outwith the universal entitlement for P1-P3s, is low income. In Scotland it is estimated that 24% of children (230,000 children each year) live in poverty.[v] The Scottish Government statistics do not provide a ready breakdown on total numbers of pupils entitled or registered for FSMs based on low income entitlement alone. In 2019, I estimate using the School Healthy Living Survey that the total free school eligibility based on the low income criterion is approximately 124,000.[vi]
The evidence-based response to an eligibility based exclusively on low income is to increase income. This would also be the most dignified and non-stigmatising response. This has not happened as the guidance allows local authorities to make decisions locally on how to replace FSMs. It has not required local authorities to have a standardised response across Scotland. The Scottish Government recently announced a £70 million ‘Food Fund’ to be allocated to local authorities of which £15 million is ring-fenced to support the delivery of their FSM provision.[vii] This guidance emphasises that local authorities should consider the needs of entire families whose children are eligible for FSMs and it emphasises the importance of a cash-first approach, although again it leaves authorities to formulate a local response rather than require a standardised pan-Scotland one.[viii]
The result is that many local authorities have imposed a nonmonetary approach to FSM eligibility. Only 10 out of 32 local authorities’ first response is to give money to families, correct as of 12th May 2020. This implies local authorities do not trust families to buy food for their children if they were to give them money. Table 1 gives an overview of how each local authority in Scotland is meeting its statutory duty to provide low income children with FSMs in light of school closures.
Table 1 – Local authority responses to free school meal eligibility during COVID-19
|Local authority||How fulfilling eligibility||Amount (daily)|
|Aberdeen City||Supermarket vouchers issued fortnightly||£2.50|
|Aberdeenshire||Cash – paid every 4 weeks||£2.50|
|Angus||Cash – paid fortnightly||unknown|
|Argyll and Bute||Meal collection or delivery||—|
|Clackmannanshire||Cash – paid fortnightly||£2.30|
|Dumfries and Galloway||Choice between collection, delivery or fortnightly cash||£3.50|
|Dundee||Cash – paid weekly||£2.25|
|East Ayrshire||Meal delivery each day||—|
|East Dunbartonshire||Farmfoods card uploaded with £20 each week||£4.00|
|East Lothian||Weekly food package delivery||—|
|East Renfrewshire||Weekly food package delivery||—|
|Edinburgh||Cash – paid fortnightly||£2.25|
|Eilean Siar||Still deciding between delivery, collection, vouchers, cash||unknown|
|Falkirk||Collect meal from school||—|
|Fife||Cash – paid weekly||£2.30|
|Glasgow City||Farmfoods card uploaded with £20 each fortnight||£2.00|
|Inverclyde||Cash – paid fortnightly||£2.50|
|Midlothian||Cash for families with secondary and primary children/ food delivery for those with primary children only||unknown|
|Moray||Supermarket vouchers issued fortnightly||£2.50|
|North Ayrshire||Weekly food package delivery (opt-in basis)||—|
|North Lanarkshire||£20 PayPoint voucher per week||£4.00|
|Perth and Kinross||Cash – paid fortnightly||unknown|
|Renfrewshire||Cash – paid fortnightly||£2.25|
|Scottish Borders||Collect packed lunch daily or supermarket e-voucher||£2.50|
|South Ayrshire||Food box on a weekly basis||—|
|South Lanarkshire||£30 PayPoint voucher per fortnight||£3.00|
|Stirling||Packed lunches delivered twice a week||—|
|West Dunbartonshire||Collect lunch daily or receive Farmfoods voucher||£2.45|
|West Lothian||Collect meal from school||—|
The table shows that there is no uniform approach and there is a lack of consistency. Some local authorities have changed their approach, e.g. from collection or delivery of food to vouchers or cash payments. While this is welcome, it is not always due to increasing levels of trust in families, but because they could no longer guarantee food provision.[ix] The frequency of payments varies from weekly, fortnightly to monthly. There is variation in the daily amounts given to replace FSMs. The amounts vary from a low of £2 to a high of £4 per child per day. The approach of delivering meals to children’s homes levies an additional financial and environment cost as it requires transport, drivers and fuel. One local authority requires eligible families to opt-in to the FSM replacement provision, even for families who would have been eligible prior to COVID-19. Of those local authorities that provide vouchers, some are providing vouchers for a frozen foods shop which does not have a large number of shops across Scotland, when families living in poverty tend not to have large freezers. This incurs additional costs in travel to the shop, in storing the food and in defrosting and cooking the food. It also precludes the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables for children. On local authority websites there were not always links to FSM applications, which will make applying for FSMs difficult for those who may now be eligible due to COVID-19. Alarmingly, some local authorities have a March 2020 cut-off date for eligibility to apply for FSMs, which means that the children of those who lose their jobs, or who move to a new area, for example because they are escaping abuse, will not be entitled to receive a FSM at all.
There are no publicly available data on monitoring and evaluating local authorities’ differing approaches to providing FSMs; for example, no data are collected on the cost of the different schemes, taking all factors, e.g. transport, into account. Furthermore, there is no breakdown in relation to local authorities usual spend in this area, how they have reallocated their existing funds or whether they are still contracted to pay suppliers who may no longer be able to provide a service. Without access to these data it is not possible to provide effective scrutiny of local authority approaches.
What many of these nonmonetary responses fail to understand is that the sole criterion of eligibility to FSMs is a lack of income. Why do many local authorities not trust families living in poverty with cash?
The impacts of a nonmonetary response
The main impact of a nonmonetary response is that children and young people may not take up their eligibility. In Port Talbot there was a 300% increase (from 1000 to 4000 pupils) in the uptake of FSMs during the COVID-19 pandemic when the provision changed from food collection to cash.[x] In England, 40% of households with children (aged 8-16y) eligible for FSMs report they have not yet received a FSM substitute[xi] – similar data are not publicly available for Scotland.
Children and families are experiencing higher and deeper levels of poverty and what they need is more money. Aberlour children’s charity have recorded a 1,400% increase in applications for financial assistance from families, with 90% of these applications being for food.[xii]
The initial emergency response to COVID-19 was understandably and necessarily swift and did not draw on the evidence on the best way to support families living in poverty. However, time is moving on and now is the time to take stock, to evaluate practice, to take on board expert opinion, including those with lived experience, and to consider a change of approach. This is especially so as the question arises of whether and how FSM provision will continue through the 2020 summer holidays. This is also pertinent in relation to the recently announced £30 million fund to ensure children’s digital inclusion as they are now expected to learn online part-time from home.[xiii] It is imperative this fund ensures that children whose family is unable to support their digital inclusion receive what they need on an individual and family basis. It should not be the case that a local approach is implemented, such as the one with FSMs which allows children to receive a different service by local authority.
There is a precedent for a national minimum standard to a poverty issue to be applied in schools. Prior to May 2018, the value of school clothing grants (SCG) across local authorities was variable, with a low of £20 in one to a high of £110 in another, and were often paid in stigmatising vouchers.[xiv] Following a voluntary agreement between the Scottish Government and local authorities, the SCG was standardised across all local authorities to the value of £100, paid in cash. A similarly standardised, national approach to FSM provision is needed during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure equity and dignity for children and their families.
This piece is derived from a longer paper due to be published in November 2020:
Treanor, M. C. forthcoming. How COVID-19 crisis measures reveal the conflation between poverty and adversity. Scottish Affairs
[ii] SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT 2020. Coronvirus (COVID-19): school and early learning closures – guidance about key workers and vulnerable children. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.
[ix] https://www.inverclyde.gov.uk/news/2020/apr/changes-to-free-school-lunch-provision (Accessed 12 May 2020)
[x] NEATH PORT TALBOT COUNCIL 2020. Eligible parents urged to take advantage of free school meals. Wales: Neath Port Talbot Council.
[xi] LOOPSTRA, R. 2020. Vulnerability to food insecurity since the COVID-19 lockdown. London: Food Foundation.
[xii] ABERLOUR 2020. Responding to COVID-19: Supporting Children, Young People & Families at Aberlour. Stirling: Aberlour Children’s Charity
[xiii] SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT 2020. Coronavirus (COVID-19): Scotland’s route map – what you can and cannot do.
[xiv] TREANOR, M. C. 2018. Falling through the cracks: the cost of the school day for families living in in-work and out-of-work poverty. Scottish Affairs, 27, 486–511.Follow: