Suffolk calls for schools to be reimbursed for free school meal measures after Government’s system fails
Suffolk education leaders are set to lobby the Government on reimbursing schools which have had to fork out for free school meals, following failings in the national programme.
The Department for Education (DfE) said a scheme was in place during the coronavirus lockdown where low income families would be given £15 per week in food vouchers through its provider, Edenred.
MORE: Bookmark the EADT Coronavirus topic page for latest updatesBut issues in schools being able to access the website and problems for parents in downloading the vouchers nationwide has left some schools putting in place their own free school meal schemes to ensure pupils were fed.
Now, Suffolk County Council – which set up its own scheme for pupils between placements such as people moving to the area or excluded pupils – has said it will lobby the DfE for schools to be reimbursed for those efforts.
Assistant director for education and learning, Adrian Orr, said: “Some Suffolk school leaders have really struggled to get on to the system and what has actually happened is, while there is huge frustration among many school leaders about the Edenred approach, what they have done is put in an alternative arrangement in place funded from their own budget in the absence of making the Edenred scheme work.
“We will be, as a council, lobbying and challenging the DfE significantly about how those additional costs that schools have incurred to ensure children are fed are going to be covered when we move past this whole area.”
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Jane Stalham, headteacher at Sproughton CofE Primary School, said staff had to make applications through the Edenred scheme between 5am and 6am when the website was not as busy.
She said: “Initially we did packed lunches [for free school meals pupils] and we had a couple of people on site to give hot meals to children here in school.
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“After Easter, we moved to the Edenred scheme which can be very time consuming.
“We found if we go on at 5am or 6am it is smooth sailing.”
MORE: School transport flexibility agreed for return of pupils to schoolAccording to Mrs Stalham, parents downloading the vouchers were often using the site early in the morning or late at night to ensure they could get download them.
A spokeswoman from the DfE said refunds were available for schools where additional costs were incurred before the national voucher scheme was introduced,
She added: “We continue to encourage schools to work with their suppliers to arrange food parcels or collections for families eligible for free school meals. There are some outstanding examples of where schools across the country are using their own offers to support the children who need it most.
“Where that is not possible, the national voucher scheme was launched for schools to provide supermarket vouchers, which is delivering for thousands of schools. As of Tuesday May 12, the amount of free school meal codes redeemed into supermarket vouchers by families and schools is at over £65million.
“Improvements have been made to Edenred’s technology system this weekend and we expect the company to continually improve to meet this unprecedented situation.”
However, questions have been raised over the scheme not agreeing to provide meals over the May half term week, which could leave schools having to fund measures.
The county council’s Labour spokesman for education, Jack Abbott, said: “There have been real problems with this scheme. Schools have been unable to log on to the system, families have struggled to download the vouchers and some vouchers have failed to work. Schools have even had to dip into their own budgets to guarantee that children were fed - they must be recompensed immediately.
“The Government knew how many children would need free school meal vouchers but the system was not fit for purpose.
“I am also really concerned that the government will not be providing free school meal vouchers over the May half-term, despite having done so over Easter.
MORE: Schools prepare for progress gap when pupils return to school“It cannot be right that schools, who are already under enormous pressure, will again have to fund the vouchers themselves in order to feed their pupils. The educational impact of the lockdown has been particularly felt by children from disadvantaged backgrounds with limited access to equipment, the internet and appropriate learning spaces.
“The Government must reverse this decision to ensure that no child goes hungry.”