Free School Meals

Media Release
For immediate release
DFM's universal free school meals promise “massively welcome”, say child poverty campaigners

Child poverty campaigners have welcomed John Swinney’s manifesto commitment to introduce year round universal free school lunches and breakfasts for all primary school pupils in Scotland from 2022. The Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary made the announcement in his address to the SNPs annual conference at lunchtime today (Saturday 28/11/20).

John Dickie, Director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), said:

“This is a massively welcome commitment. With struggling families under increasing pressure as the economic impact of coronavirus plays out, the time has unquestionably come to remove the means test from school meals. We know from our work that tens of thousands of children across Scotland are officially recognized as living in poverty but are not currently getting a free school meal. For many more hard pressed families the cost of school lunches and breakfasts is a huge financial burden.

Providing a free school meal to every pupil, and a cash replacement during the school holidays, is the most effective and efficient way to ensure every child benefits. There is now a significant body of evidence that a universal approach to free school meals does not just reduce pressure on family finances, but can boost children’s health, wellbeing and educational attainment.”

Since its establishment in 1999 the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland has played a lead role in campaigning for universal free school meals as part of wider action to end child poverty. The charity works with children, young people, teachers and parents across Scotland to identify and remove financial barriers to full participation at school through its Cost of the School Day project.

Mr. Dickie continued;

“Of course hard hit families need extra support now to keep them afloat until the full roll out of the Scottish child payment and this new school meals offer in 2022. That’s why we continue to urge the Scottish Government to use existing mechanisms, such as the school clothing grant, to get additional financial support to families this winter to help them weather the coronavirus storm.”


For further details or interviews please contact John Dickie, Director of CPAG in Scotland, on [email protected] or 07795 340 618


More details of the CPAG led free school meals campaign and evidence on the impact of universal free school meals on poverty, health and education can be found below and details of the Cost of the School day project are available here.

A universal approach to free school meals is gaining support across the Scottish political spectrum. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has also pledged to introduce free school meals at both breakfast and lunch for all primary pupils if his party gains power next year. The Scottish Greens are committed to providing all pupils with access to a nutritious breakfast and lunch, including during school holidays and the Scottish Labour 2019 manifesto also committed to extending free school meals to include all school years and during holidays.

Why are universal free school meals so important?

The universal provision of free, healthy school meals has proven benefits in relation to uptake, family budgets, educational attainment and addressing inequality.

Universal provision boosts take up of healthy lunches

The Scottish Government’s pilot trials of universal provision of free school meals to all P1 to P3 pupils in 2007/8 demonstrated a substantial effect on take up of school meals, increasing overall take up by 22 percentage points (from 53% to 75%). Furthermore, even amongst children already entitled to free school meals, take-up rose by 4.4 percentage points, and in some areas by up to 8.5 percentage points.1

Further analysis of the pilot attributed the rise in take-up of free school meals by those who had always entitled to a “positive peer effect”. They concluded that children became more likely to use their entitlement to free school meals “because a greater proportion of other students in the school were doing so.”2 

Universal provision supports family budgets and home life

Evaluation of the Scottish pilots also pointed to a positive impact on family budgets and the home environment. There was, the evaluation concluded, “evidence that the trial had impacted positively on the home environment of pupils,” and that “the simple benefit of increasing disposable income was particularly evident amongst parents with more than one child.”3

Free school meals can increase disposable income significantly given that a family with two young children spend approximately £685 a year of school lunches alone.4

Universal provision boosts learning and attainment

As well as increasing take up of healthy lunches and providing relief to family budgets, free school meals impact positively on children’s learning experience. Evaluation of a free school meals pilot for primary school children over two years in Hull found a “significant impact in all areas of children's schooling...behaviour, social relationships, health and learning”,5 whilst more recent evaluation of the provision of free school meals to all primary pupils in Durham and Newham found that “offering free school meals to all primary school pupils increased attainment in disadvantaged areas.”6

Universal provision is progressive and helps tackle inequality

Modelling conducted by economists at Dundee University concluded that the current system of means testing in relation to free school meals “fails to deliver welfare to the poorest in society”. The results show that universal free school meals would not waste money by benefiting better off families at the expense of those facing poverty. Only when entitlement is extended to the richest 10% of families is there no additional benefit to less well-off children.7

The commitment to universal free school lunches in P1 to P3 was secured with the support of:

‘I had to go and pick him up from the school one day because he had been sick. Just before lunchtime. He never had any dinner money left. And I said to him “what’s happening? What’s going on?” and he said “I’m getting bullied because I’m poor and I’ve not got any money for a bacon roll”. It’s hard enough as it is. He got bullied right though primary school ... and I thought “I cannae bear the thought of you being here and not enjoying it and just getting bullied because you haven’t got money for a bacon roll”.

“We were in the lunch queue one day and my pal says to me “ You can just buy my lunch today. It’s my parents that pay for your free school meals anyway”.