No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

As is its repeated wont, the massive EIS union has waded out into deep political waters well over its head by pressuring the Scottish Government to make all school meals free for pupils in the first three years of primary school (today’s Hootsmon). As a principle, it has merit—virtually all sources agree that ensuring all pupils are fed and nourished makes an impact on their ability to concentrate and learn and also removes one possible source of social discrimination among them. Most parties agree with the principle. But is it ipse facto that simple?

School meals have always had some social baggage—the kids whose parents both had to work, as well as those who were not good providers once made up the bulk of those in the school dining hall. Now that pupils typically don’t leave the campus at lunch time, there has been more of a leveling, especially now that swipe cards blur distinctions between those paying for their lunch and those using free meal entitlement.

The reason this policy has become a political football is a consensus that free school meal entitlement (FSME) acts as a measure of social deprivation in a school’s catchment area and (this point being more controversial) acts as an inverse indicator of academic performance. Such performance is itself a political football, with many (including the EIS and other teaching unions) scoffing that exam results are any measure of the quality of teaching received and more a measure of affluence, of engaged parents and their ability to hire tutors. The only scoff we make is that vocational qualifications should be equally venerated—but that’s for another blog another day.

As with any social science involving millions and complex demographics, single parameters are never able to tell the whole story. But the idea that free school meals are in the gift of government and have few opponents is appealing for politicians—including union officials—at a national level. There are few risks being seen advocating it. And it is not just Labour-leaning teaching unions trying to beat up on an SNP government. At their autumn conference in 2009, Jamie Hepburn MSP successfully moved and passed a motion for free school meals to ALL primary classes, not just to P1-P3. Despite  becoming party policy, this has yet to be scheduled as government business and passed into law.

But this leads to the fundamental question: who are the education authorities in Scotland? By law, it is the 32 local authorities, for whom there is very little point if their entire policy package is dictated by central government. That is already the case in class sizes, Curriculum for Education and Gaelic education. What’s the point of an Education Authority that does little more than set term times? Why can they not decide that their local circumstances require free school meals—or indeed a host of other choices like teaching Norwegian in Shetland, farming in the Borders or oil-related engineering in Aberdeen?

The whole premise that FSME runs inverse to exam results also does not bear much scrutiny. The table below is the top ten high schools by exam results with their FSME shown in percent of the enrollment.

'Top Ten' High Schools by Exam Results

‘Top Ten’ High Schools by Exam Results

Only two have changed since last year. Impressive results as these are, there is a large variation in their associated FSME stats. If this were so decisive, why would Banchory not beat St Ninians as they have a quarter of their FSME? How do Tarbert or the Gaelic School do so well, despite 1 in 10 pupils entitled to FSM? Ansd what about those with substantial FSME? Take the highest 10 of these within the top 50 in exam achievement gives the following table:

Highest FSME High School within Top 50 in Exam Results

Highest FSME High School within Top 50 in Exam Results

What is striking among these is—despite high FSME stats—these are not all languishing near the bottom. Indeed Douglas and Woodfarm are not far off being in the Top Ten above. So, while a doubling of FSME over a broad range gives a rough halving of exam results, the variation between schools at both ends of the scales are huge.

At the bottom end of the table 14 of the lowest 20 are in one of the four cities; these range from 24% to 54% FSME. The half-dozen non-city schools range from 13% to 33%. Perhaps the most disturbing is the spread of schools within a given city: Glasgow has 2 in the top ten but 7 in the bottom twenty; Edinburgh has 0 and 3, respectively. While FSME provides some guide towards what exam results to expect, clearly there are other major factors at play, not least is that a general hierarchy of: suburban is-better-than rural better-than city applies right across Scotland and requires a less crude analysis than by FSME.

Educators, schools and unions all fall over themselves to dismiss exam tables as a measure of how good any school is. “There are very good schools in deprived areas which look like they are underperforming simply because their results are not so good.” (Dr Mark Priestley, School of Education, Stirling University). Interpreting such results through FSME may be too crude but, as it is based on deprivation, let’s look at its demographics through the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), published by the government.

Some 60% of best-performing East Renfrewshire lies in the least deprived quintile while barely 5% lies in the most. For Edinburgh, 45% lies in the least and 10% in the most-deprived quintiles. That again provides some explanation but does not answer why Douglas Academy can be just outside the top decile while Bo’ness Academy lies just above the tenth decile when both share FSME of 13%. What areas of East Dunbartonshire are not in the least deprived group around Kirkintilloch; few are in Douglas’ catchment. Most of the Bo’ness catchment is a mix of 2nd, 3rd & 4th quintiles.

So, SIMD might be one clearer measure. But after a study of such comparisons as the above, it quickly becomes clear that the real underlying factor (from which the more easily quantifiable SIMD and FSME derive) is the coherence of the community and its economic vitality. Visit Milngavie and Bo’ness and contrast the douce middle class suburb with the ex-mining/fishing/shipbreaking town that has yet to discover its 21st century purpose.

Scan down the list of ‘top’ schools above and every one is powered by motivated parents in a hinterland little different to Milngavie. Scan the bottom list and every one lies in areas blighted by economic decline—even Alness, where the smelter closed, rig construction has declined to nothing and tourists are hard to lure off the nearby A9. It is more than affluent areas sending their children to private schools; it is perfectly good state schools starved of motivated pupils because neither they nor their parents (some of whom are poor but many CAN spare lunch money for their children) see the point in bothering.

In an old Mad magazine cartoon, a character asked how many Elastoplasts it takes to cure a brain haemhorrage. Crusading union leaders and MSPs keen to board any passing bandwagon and boost their career might ruminate over Mad’s pallative ideas. Providing free lunches will cost significant money we don’t have to achieve nothing in academic terms and little in terms of nourishing the student body. Worse: it does nothing to address underlying causes—lack of community, of hope, of appreciation just how key education is to build futures, let alone how brutal the world can be, even armed with qualifications.

A more effective approach would be to examine the legion funded causes active in the Bo’ness, Wester Hailes, Castlebrae, Gallowgate, Shettleston, etc, give them targets and deadlines to succeed by putting themselves out of business and treat each area with a purposeful community plan so that residents have reasons to send their kids to school and interest enough to check the homework when they come back. Making excuses like “this school is excellent, given its catchment area” condemns another generation of our young to hopelessness, the buroo and, as the educationalists put it ‘non-positive destinations’.

A free or any other kind of lunch is useless—except as a platform for politicians.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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