In 2015 the Scottish Government began funding free school meals for all children in primary years 1-3. It planned to extend this to all children in receipt of 1140 hours of early years education by August 2020, though this implementation date is now changing due to the unprecedented circumstances created by the impact of coronavirus.
Nevertheless, this extension of free school meals to children in early years in Scotland means catering teams have been working hard to develop localised solutions for providing those meals.
The extension represents a significant investment in our services and our infrastructure, which caterers in Scotland have embraced as a real opportunity to grow their services and support the work they already have in place to feed our school age children and young people.
And even though the implementation date looks set to move, our teams will still, in the coming weeks and months, be working hard to be ready as soon as possible.
In terms of that increased demand, in my own area of Argyll and Bute for example, we currently provide around 6,000 meals per day, and we expect that to increase by another 1,500 as a result of this expansion. At 25%, this figure represents significant growth.
The current provision to early years children is based on entitlement, so this move to universal provision is most welcome.
However, it doesn’t come without its challenges. The changes to infrastructure such as refurbishments, extensions and new builds has been difficult at times, and it has been important for catering teams to have a voice at the table when decisions about design and build are being made.
The final push to get these buildings finished is now on hold as a result of the lockdown caused by the coronavirus and the Covid-19 disease it causes, but reaching a tight deadline when there has been so much work across the country that needed to be done has always been a constraint we have faced.
The project has been funded by the Scottish Government to the tune of £3.11 per meal. And while that seems generous, it needs to provide meals to children in all settings, including those attending private nurseries and child minders.
Local authorities are making local decisions about the best way of delivering these services - either through allocating the spend to private partners if they have kitchens, or by absorbing the additional costs of production and transportation to sites with no kitchen facilities.
The growing number of outdoor nurseries must also be catered for, and our teams have creative ways of providing meals while also complying with food safety legislation.
The money also 'follows the child', so if children are attending a setting in a neighbouring local authority, the expectation is that the funding will go with them.
One of the biggest changes we have to contend with has been the guidance and compliance around the food provision, which is different from schools. Our schools in Scotland must meet the Health Promotion and Nutrition Act requirements, and compliance is monitored by inspectors from Education Scotland - our equivalent of Ofsted.
For early years, the monitoring is conducted by the Care Commission, and the provision has its own set of guidance, entitled 'Setting the Table', where the guiding principles are slightly different from schools.
For example, early years pupils have no choice of meal, whereas in schools they do. This can pose a challenge to caterers if they are already providing multiple services - but their skills and experience are really demonstrating how professional and capable our workforce is.
The service expansion also means that there is an increased demand for staff, and recruitment is, as we all know, a challenge for caterers at the moment, but this has only served to exacerbate the problem. The overall expansion of the programme to include children receiving 1140 hours of education has created demand for a whole range of posts: for early years support workers and teachers, putting further pressure on the jobs market which catering can often find challenging at any time.
But although this change is a challenge, the opportunity to support, develop and promote the excellent work of our caterers is still one we are embracing.
Funded early learning and childcare (ELC)
In December 2018 the Scottish Government announced a scheme to deliver healthy food, outdoor play and the Living Wage to the childcare sector. It is due to start in August.
Under it, every child attending a funded early learning and childcare (ELC) session will be entitled to receive a healthy meal.
It will also ensure access to outdoor play sessions for all and will enable providers to pay all childcare workers delivering the funded sessions at least the real Living Wage.
It will be ‘provider neutral’, giving parents choice over where they choose to access funded hours of childcare for their children, and is part of a programme to almost double the funded provision of ELC from 600 hours per year to 1,140 hours by 2020, underpinned by almost £500m allocated in the budget.