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Thousands of local students in limbo after latest free school meals delay

If free school meals are extended to include all primary pupils, another 16,000 would become eligible. 
If free school meals are extended to include all primary pupils, another 16,000 would become eligible. 

More than 16,000 north and north-east primary pupils who were due to receive free school meals this autumn will instead be kept waiting.

This comes after the Scottish Government confirmed a delay in extending its free school meals programme to P6s and P7s, originally planned for August 2022.

Only P1-5 are universally eligible for free school meals. Older pupils must meet income criteria to be eligible.

Aberdeenshire, Highland and Moray Councils said they are still waiting on a new timeline from the Scottish Government.

Last year, around 2,600 P6-P7 pupils registered for free school meals across the north and north-east based on family income. Extending the programme to everyone means that approximately 16,000 pupils could become eligible.

But the delay means a longer wait for older primary pupils.

Who is currently eligible and who is affected by the delay?

Without the universal offering to every pupil, only certain families qualify for free school meals.

Families with pupils in P6 or above are only entitled to free meals if they meet low income criteria and are already getting certain benefits.

Children are eligible if they are P5 or below, or if parents get:

  • The Child Tax Credit with an income less than £16,105
  • The Child Tax Credit and the Working Tax Credit, with an income up to £7,500

Under these rules, 2,684 out of 18,699 P6 and P7 pupils in the north and north-east were registered for free school meals in 2021.

If the programmes expands to include all primary pupils, it would mean free meals for an extra 16,000 older pupils.

When we reported on the expansion to P4-5 pupils earlier in the school year, we found that a year of free school meals could save parents up to £500 in some areas.

No guesses for when expansion will happen

The Scottish Government has promised that all primary pupils will begin receiving free school meals by 2025. All P4-5 pupils became eligible this year. The initial plan was to include P6-7s in August 2022.

But when the government announced its 2022-23 budget in December, it dropped the August date.

A Scottish Government spokesman said that registered pupils save an average of £400 a year, but couldn’t say exactly when those savings will be available to everyone.

“We will continue to work with our partners in local authorities to plan for the expansion of free school meal provision to P6 and P7s. This work will be supported by £30m of capital funding to support expansion of catering and dining facilities.”

The £30 million worth of kitchen investments will come “later in the parliamentary term”.

Local parents received letters from schools reminding them about the delay

Many local authority representatives said they are waiting for an update on the scheme. A spokesman for Highland Council said that the government hasn’t given a more specific timeline.

A spokesman for Aberdeenshire Council said the P6-7 universal meals programme was “suspended” by the Scottish Government and they don’t know anything further

He added: “No further information has come out as yet as to when this may start.”

A spokesman for Moray Council said that, in spite of the delays, schools will offer what they can to pupils.

“Schools will always ensure children are fed and continue to work with families to signpost them to support if their income means they may qualify for additional support.”

Read more from the Schools & Family team

Kept in the dark: Council refuses demands to inform parents of ‘abusive and degrading’ messages

Union wants free school meals for all school pupils

Free school meals expansion ‘removes shame and stigma’

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