Fife Council could be facing at least £15 million in additional costs to deliver the Scottish Government’s pledge for free school meals for P1 to P5 pupils, it has emerged.

Local authorities across Scotland have been preparing to extend provision to youngsters in P5 from January 2022, this after P4 pupils started getting free lunches from August this year.

The policy is expected to cost £28 million for the 2021/22 term across the country, while a further £21.75 million was also set aside for “targeted free school meal support” during the school holidays.

But while councils have so far been allocated their share of cash to provide free school meals for up to 90,000 kids, how Fife can cover the capital costs of fulfilling the policy is less clear.

Fife Council’s head of finance Elaine Muir has revealed that early financial projections on what needs to be done to the school estate suggest around £15 million may be required across the region to cater for demand – and it may be more.     

“Work has been underway to estimate the likely costs to the council of delivering on the policy intention of free school meal expansion,” she explained to members of Fife’s policy and co-ordination committee last week. 

“It will be critical that funding is forthcoming to cover these costs but further detail will be reported as it becomes available.”

The news emerged as councillors discussed the local authority’s capital investment plan for 2021 to 2031, which is showing a projected spend of £718.3m against a budget of £703.5m – an £14.8m overspend.

Conservative leader Dave Dempsey questioned officers on why the free school meal policy had been featured in capital spending plans, but Ms Muir confirmed that changes to the fabric of buildings would be required across the school estate and therefore merited inclusion.

Finance secretary Kate Forbes confirmed in last Thursday’s 2022/23 budget statement that the Scottish Government plans to provide over £40 million of funding to deliver free school lunches to all children in Primary 4 and 5 and in special schools, and a £30 million capital allocation for initial investment in school kitchens ahead of the roll-out of free lunches to all primary school children.

What that means in practice for Fife is too early to say, but the region’s education service is exploring funding options to cover any shortfall and also looking at various ways to implement the policy as cost-effectively as possible.

That may include looking at the likes of Aberdeenshire Council, which is looking at the prospect of running its own mobile food service in schools to increase school meal uptake, or Aberdeen City Council, which is keen to provide food vans outdoors serving school meals at two schools there by the end of the school year.