It seems like no time since my last column, at a time when everyone was gearing up for the festive break. Now the tinsel’s packed away, the Christmas cards have been recycled and we’re desperately trying to eat more healthily to make up for the festive excess.
For most of us Christmas is a time of fun and merriment, but for too many families it brings its own woes. Child Poverty Action Group Scotland drew attention to research published over Christmas highlighting the costs of school holidays for those living in poverty. The winter break is particularly challenging because of parents’ responsibility to keep their children warm, clothed and fed, all day, every day.
And, of course, that is before less-well-off families even begin to think about the pressures to provide all the presents and festive food and drink so many take for granted.
We must listen carefully to the message of the Child Poverty Action Group and always strive to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities. An actively caring and compassionate society is a civilised society, and I am pleased that Nicola Sturgeon has made a point of re-emphasising her commitment to making Scotland a fairer country in which all children are given the opportunity to flourish.
Strong foundations have been put in place for us to build on. The start of the new term marked the first anniversary of the introduction of free school meals for all children in primaries 1 to 3. 192,000 pupils across Scotland are benefiting from this policy, saving families around £380 per child per year. That is a substantial saving for families on tight budgets, but free school meals is about so much more than just finances.
School meals alleviate hunger. Research has shown that hungry children have poorer concentration and achieve poorer academic outcomes. By ensuring everyone is well fed, regardless of background or wealth, free school meals are helping to reduce the attainment gap. And the beauty of universal entitlement is that there is no damaging stigma associated with it.
Poverty is an enormously complex challenge to overcome and there is an awful lot left to do if we are to stand any chance of eradicating it, but I am pleased that the Scottish Government’s focus is concentrated on it, particularly child poverty.
If re-elected, the SNP will continue to strive to deliver policies that make life better for everyone and give our nation’s children the best possible start in life. In the face of extreme Tory austerity it’s challenging work to say the least, but we must never give in. Children are the innocent victims of poverty and we must resolve to strain every sinew to create another Scotland built on fairness, equality and with opportunities for all. It’s the right thing to do.