THE history of universal school meals is almost as old as our reconvened Parliament itself and should stand out as one of the greatest achievements of the devolution era.

It is more than disappointing therefore to arrive at a position this very week where the Scottish Government behaviour on school meals is being described as “shameful” by the Educational Institute of Scotland.

At stake is the decision to delay by two years, the final roll out of universal provision to primary six and seven, when the target date was August last year. The umbrage of the teaching unions is exacerbated by the “sneaky” way news of the delay was released and the break-down of their own relationship with the Scottish Government.

Andrea Bradley, general secretary of the EIS union, said that, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, the move “runs contrary” to efforts to tackle child poverty and attacked ministers for having “obscured” the position within the draft 2023-24 Scottish Budget.

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Of course Scottish Ministers say that the criticism is all very unfair, that the Scottish policy is vastly superior to that south of the border and that Jamie Oliver would be in food heaven if he could persuade the Tory Ministers to be anything like as progressive.

In reality, and unfortunately, they have no-one but themselves to blame. They have allowed one of the greatest journeys of our Parliament to falter at the last minute. One might think that the Education Secretary had been preoccupied with other matters!

It was way back in 2002 when the Parliamentary process began with the School Meals Scotland Bill introduced by Tommy Sheridan (SSP) and co-sponsored by Alex Neil (SNP) and John McAllion (Labour) – now that is a political strike force which puts even Marcus Rashford in the shade.

The bill failed but even the profoundly unambitious Scottish Executive felt the poltical heat and responded with Hungry for Success to increase the quality and take up of school meal provision.

Things picked up pace in 2007 when the incoming SNP Government committed to a pilot for universal meals and then included it in the subsequent local government concordat. This set the Government firmly on the path of universal provision of school meals in primary and also guaranteed food in the rapidly expanding pre-school sector.

It allowed for proper study and evaluation of the policy and the provision of the technical challenges of space, staffing and kitchens. The eventual aim was universal provision across the school estate with its arrangement in primaries a realisable and hugely significant milestone.

The Education (School Lunches) (Scotland) Regulations 2009 extended entitlement to the children of parents receiving maximum Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credits, while 16 to 18 year olds getting these benefits in their own right could also claim free school meals.

Finally in 2014 the Scottish Government announced the provision of free school meals to P1-P3 pupils and followed up with an amendment to the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act. It gave ministers the power to require local authorities to provide free school meals to all children in these year groups.

The Government then progressively expanded the policy until the great staging post of universal provision in primary should have been achieved over this last year.

Instead we have a delay so clumsily “sneaked” out that even toe-rag Tories like Douglas Ross feel confident enough to criticise, oblivious to the failures south of the border. Having a plank of wood in their own eye has never stopped a hypocritical Tory looking for the sawdust of a headline.

Instead of retreat and delay we need to advance the school meal policy right now. The truth is that the rollout of universal school meals over the last 15 years have allowed the greatest technical challenges to be overcome. It would simplify – not complicate – logistics to have the policy universal in primary schools as well as removing the final stigma from low income families.

What should happen is initiatives to make it a 365-day provision.

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Further moves should be taken now to make the food not just healthy and nutritious but exemplifying the best of Scotland’s larder. Our hard pressed farmers and fishermen should be getting massive orders for fresh fruit and pelagic fish. Our best chefs should be roped in to present menus appetising for the young palate and the source and origins of our food should be integrated into the modules of curriculum for excellence.

The halal and vegetarian options should be proclaimed and explained to children as part of the One Scotland celebration of our diversity.

Scotland’s own sporting stars should be recruited to make the policy and the children feel special and to proclaim of ambition to make Scotland the best country in the world for a child to grow up strong and healthy to meet the future. For a country facing a demographic time bomb, thanks to Westminster misrule, there is nothing more important than providing our children with the best start in life.

This New Year, let our greatest resolution be that the universal and year -ound provision of healthy Scottish sourced food for all our bairns be placed back on course. And let the ambition and its progressive achievement be shouted from the rooftops in the clear light of day.