DISTRESSED families are turning up at school gates in Warrington due to ongoing failings in the free school meals voucher system with anxieties at an all time high during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Warrington Borough Council Chief Executive Professor Steven Broomhead has written to the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson CBE calling for urgent action fearing children from deprived areas of the town are going hungry.
In his letter Prof Broomhead says he believes a “strong council” with an enhanced funding offer would have delivered a more robust and locally responsive offer in support of vulnerable children and their families.
He blames the Government’s decision to appoint a national private sector contractor, Edenred, which has no knowledge of the local need and inadequate mechanisms/infrastructure to deliver comprehensively at a local level, to be the main issue.
In the letter he states: “The current COVID-19 crisis has necessitated fast rethinking of the services and support we provide to vulnerable children and families and the configuration of our schools as key settings to do this. In Warrington our school leaders are all working closely with the Council to develop a safe and responsive offer of childcare for essential key workers and to ensure that vulnerable children continue to be risk-assessed, supported and attend school as appropriate.
“I welcome the principle that, despite the current crisis, we continue to address the impact of poverty on children, through the continued entitlement to free school meals and we are seeing families plunging into financial hardship and this key access to food is a lifeline to them.
“I do however want to support the concerns being raised across the country about the practical operation of the school voucher scheme, being managed by Edenred. It is too often failing to provide the support needed and is proving to be incredibly frustrating. Our Schools have had considerable problems accessing the system to ensure that families get their vouchers. We have an example of a school business manager being on the phone for 7 hours trying to get through to the system and a Head teacher being advised to try the system at 5am or 11pm and that she ‘might have more success then.’ She did get up at 5am today and didn’t have any more success. One of our Primaries in a very socio economically deprived area waited 3 weeks for an activation code and in the meantime continued to support over 130 families via vouchers and grab bags. Our schools are unclear if they can claim back any contingency measures they implement from their Covid-19 hardship fund. Also this week some of our schools discovered that the system cannot cope with the transfer payment on multiple credit cards (due to card limits) which means schools have had to resort to a BACS process which then requires an earlier top up to ensure payments are cleared in time.
“There has also been delays in families receiving their vouchers resulting in distressed families turning up at school gates asking for help.The IT system does not yet seem to have the full capacity that it needs.
“There have been some reports of supermarkets being reluctant to accept the vouchers, and concerns that the vouchers can be swapped for store gift cards and used on non-food items. Morrison’s are restricting e-voucher to multiples of £10. This is morally abhorrent given that the Scheme was for eligible pupils to receive £15 per week. This would prejudice a family with a single child, for example.
One head teacher said:” “I would like my concerns about this system escalating. We are in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic and families are having to deal with levels of anxiety about the future and an unseen predator.
They are experiencing extreme financial hardship in many cases and the least we can do is ensure that they are able to eat and children have access to a nourishing meal. Our schools are working on the front line, keeping schools open providing a safe haven for children of our key workers and vulnerable groups. To try and navigate a cumbersome system and explain to families why the system appears not be working and manage families’ distress is becoming untenable.”
Prof. Broomhead added: “I appreciate that there will be opportunities to consider lessons-learned after the pandemic has eased but I would say that the reliance on a national private sector contractor which has no knowledge of the local need and inadequate mechanisms/infrastructure to deliver comprehensively at local level is a key point to start. As a strong council with an enhanced funding offer we would, in my opinion, have delivered a more robust and locally responsive offer in support of our vulnerable children and their families.”
The issues and concerns are being replicated up and down the country with one mother telling School Week “I’ve got nothing. No milk, no bread, no food, nothing.”
Another mother told Schools Week she could only afford one meal a day for herself, so she could feed her children, as she was unable to access the £60 of vouchers from the national scheme’s overwhelmed website.
She’s one of potentially hundreds of thousands of parents missing out on support to feed their children while schools are closed after the Edenred website failed to cope with demand.
The website, which was taken offline at Easter for an upgrade, also continues to be overwhelmed. Staff were told to wait in hour-long queues just to get into the site.
The government’s messaging has been that early problems with its national free meal voucher system are well in the past.
In a blog post, the DfE said they “know that for a large number of schools, the system is working”.