SCOTLAND'S biggest teaching union has called on the Scottish Government's to finally fulfil its pledge to provide free school meals for all primary school children, after delaying it for a further two years.

The overdue 2021 manifesto pledge to feed all primary children was meant to be in place by September.

SNP ministers had hoped to make Scotland the first country in the world to offer free school meals to all pupils of primary school age.

But the small print in Deputy First Minister John Swinney's budget showed it has been put back to August 2024.

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union, has now called on ministers to reverse its decision to delay roll-out of free school meals to all children in primaries 6 and 7.

The commitment was originally due to be delivered by last August, but a previous decision by the Scottish Government delayed the roll-out.

EIS general secretary Andrea Bradley said, “Delaying the roll-out of free school meals to all primary school children was a shameful decision, which runs contrary to the Scottish Government’s stated commitment to tackling child poverty.

"This is now the second time that the roll-out of this hugely important policy has been delayed, with serious consequences for thousands of children and families across Scotland. It is also extremely disappointing how this change in policy came to light – not announced in Parliament, but obscured within the detail of the budget document itself. In a country where more than 1 child in 4 lives in poverty, and with the cost-of-living crisis pushing ever more families into financial difficulty, it is more important than ever that universal free school meals should be a priority.”

Mr Swinney promised in November 2020 the SNP would make the free school meals for all primary pupils policy universal to all pupils by August 2022 if his party retained power at May's election.

It was part of a programme to tackle child poverty and meant that every primary school pupil would be eligible for free breakfast and lunch, all year round But an official Budget document in 2021 revealed funding had only been made available to extend the free school meals programme to pupils in P4 and P5.

In August, councils said they did not have the cash or facilities to fulfil the pledge.

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And in October, SNP minister Ivan McKee claimed it would be delivered by next June at the latest.

So far, children in primary one to primary five can get free school meals in local authority schools in Scotland.

Ms Bradley said: “Although a watered-down, means-tested policy is being implemented for P6 and P7, this will miss many young people who will just fail to qualify for a free meal, placing great strain on families already struggling with the soaring cost of living.

"Means-testing of entitlement also does nothing to reduce the stigma families and young people often feel in claiming a free meal, which leads to many young people declining to take a free meal in order to avoid unwanted scrutiny from others or being isolated from friends if they do go to the school canteen for their meal when their friends not entitled to free meals go elsewhere to eat. Universal free meals remain the best way to ensure that all young people have access to a healthy and nutritious meal at school, without any stigma being attached.

"The Scottish Government claims that practical barriers to universal roll-out are the problem.

"The EIS view is that young people should not be hungry, stigmatised or left out whilst adults dither over dining chairs, tables and cutlery. Direct cash payments to cover the cost of food at school could be made as was done during the pandemic when schools were closed.”

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “All pupils in primaries one to five, children in funded early learning and childcare and eligible pupils in Primary 6 through to S6 benefit from free meals in Scotland – the most generous universal provision of anywhere in the UK.

“We will go further. Our additional investment announced in the 2023-24 Budget will continue to fund the expansion of free school meals for all Primary 6 and 7 pupils in receipt of the Scottish Child Payment, helping children most in need first. This will be the next step in fulfilling our commitment to universal provision in primary schools.

“A number of local authorities have indicated that they face challenges in planning for the substantial expansion of free school meals. It is right that we work in partnership with local government to deliver our shared commitment.”