Around 1.3million children around the UK currently get free school meals, mostly because their parents get certain benefits, such as Universal Credit or working tax credit.
When the schools were shut the authorities realised that they needed to compensate families who would struggle to provide meals at home that had been provided free at school. So how is that working out? Have the authorities got a good plan and have they carried it out efficiently? Let’s take a look area by area.
In England, a scheme was set up to provide vouchers worth £15 a week which can be spent in the supermarket of the family’s choice.
The total value of vouchers available per eligible child per week exceeds the rate paid to schools for free school meals, recognising that families will not be buying food in bulk and may, therefore, incur higher costs.
Schools are able to order the voucher codes online with parents then receiving the voucher through their child’s school.
These can then be redeemed online via a code which can be shown on a phone, or sent to their house as a gift card and used at supermarkets including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer across the country.
But poorer families have been left waiting for weeks to receive free school meals due to problems with the government website, run by voucher supplier Edenred.
The website was set up to deliver the £15 per week supermarket vouchers to families entitled to free school meals.
But school leaders have described wasting countless hours trying to access vouchers for families from the site.
A headteacher at a primary school told Schools Week that delays and problems with logging orders has been “farcical.”
Over the Easter, weekend schools were unable to access the website at all after it went offline so that it could be upgraded.
Now the government has instructed families not to visit the site unless they have an “immediate requirement” and to only submit orders four days before they are needed.
The Department for Education said staff were working “tirelessly” with Edenred to resolve outstanding technical problems.
In Scotland, the 32 local authorities were left to devise their own response with very little time. There are worries about the way this scheme is being implemented
BBC Scotland research revealed a wide variation in how help is offered:
- 13 are providing meals, packed lunches or food packs.
- Three, including Glasgow, are issuing vouchers that can only be redeemed at Farmfoods!
- Typically payments or vouchers are worth between £10 and £12.50 a week (far lower than England) – but some councils, including North Lanarkshire and East Dunbartonshire, are offering a significantly greater level of support.
- Inverclyde originally distributed packed lunches but due to supply issues, it is changing to a system of payments worth £12.50 a week.
By leaving local councils to decide their responses there is wide variation from area to area within Scotland. Some are getting a better provision than others. You’re in luck if you live in East Dunbartonshire but not so lucky if you are restricted to buying food only from Farmfoods in Glasgow!
The Welsh government is developing a national voucher scheme for children eligible for free school meals, but until the end of Easter, schools have been told to keep feeding children.
In Northern Ireland, the government has introduced direct payments to families into bank accounts for those whose children normally get free school meals, there is no need to apply.
Families will receive £2.70 per child per day for each day of term the schools are closed. This money will be paid to families on a fortnightly basis. The direct payments scheme will ensure families eligible for free school meals will also receive direct payments into bank accounts during the period of term time school closures. In the vast majority of cases, bank details are already held because of uniform grants but provision is available for people to register them too.
Pat Harrington, Director of the Third Way think-tank commented:
It’s not hard to see the problems and inconsistencies of the provision in the English and Scottish systems which will likely be replicated in the Welsh scheme. We believe there should be a flat rate of payment in the devolved administrations. We don’t like vouchers because of the stigma that can be associated with their use and the restriction of shopping choices. It’s so sad that in Glasgow you can only use your voucher at Farmfoods! Great for Farmfoods but it takes away parental choice and disadvantages other stores. What’s that all about? Third Way believes that the Northern Ireland approach – direct payment into bank accounts – is superior to that of Scotland, England, and Wales and should be the model used everywhere. It is a simple system that doesn’t add layers of bureaucracy and can be efficiently implemented. I’d like to congratulate NI Education Minister, Peter Weir and Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey in having a good plan and implementing it well. Other areas would have done well to have followed their approach. Why is it that only Northern Ireland showed this commonsense?”
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