West Sussex Labour councillors condemn “chaotic” free school meals voucher scheme and question sharp rise in school absence fines to local families in the county
Labour councillors from West Sussex have raised their alarm about the potential problems with the free school meals voucher scheme which has meant that families eligible for them may have lost out due to administrative faults from the supplier and internal problems in accessing them from schools in the county. They have also challenged the council about the steep rise in fines for absence in county schools, out of line with other authorities in the South East.
In a letter sent today to the Tory Cabinet Member for Education at West Sussex County Council, Nigel Jupp (Con, Southwater and Nuthurst), Labour Group Leader on the county council Councillor Michael Jones (Southgate and Gossops Green) expresses serious concerns about the performance of the free school vouchers system and urges the Cabinet Member to confirm that the council satisfies itself that the arrangements are working satisfactorily across the county.
- Following the Government decision to close schools other than to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, the Department for Education (DfE) issued guidance to local authorities and schools. This advised that whilst under normal circumstances, schools are not expected to provide free school meals to eligible children who are not attending due to illness or if the school is closed, during the COVID-19 outbreak the Government expect schools to continue to provide support to all eligible children.
- The DfE has developed a centrally funded national voucher scheme to support schools with the requirement to provide food support to children eligible for free schools meals who are not in school. This funding is additional to existing free school meal budgets. Schools received information from the DfE supplier Edenred regarding how to access and administer the voucher scheme.
- Parents of children who would usually receive free school meals, but are at home during the lockdown, are meant to be able to use vouchers and e-codes provided by French company Edenred to buy food in shops. These are ordered for individual families by the schools – but problems with the system means delays in getting the vouchers to families.
- Labour councillors across West Sussex started noticing problems with the system with the system almost immediately – often meaning that either families were not receiving the vouchers and so risked going hungry, or schools and the community had to chip in to fill a gap when the vouchers were not forthcoming. A prominent example happened at Oriel School in Maidenbower, but in a briefing sent to county councillors in May, the county council itself admitted that “There does appear to be issues remaining accessing Edenred vouchers for some schools. Several schools spoken to still haven’t received their introduction email. One school reported their business manager finally getting through on the system at 1 in the morning.”
- These problems were all occurring at the same time that food bank providers had indicated demand was soaring due to food poverty. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, said it experienced its busiest ever period after lockdown was announced on 23 March, when it issued 50,000 food parcels in the space of a week, almost double its usual volume. A similar picture emerged from the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan), which said its food banks recorded a 59% increase in demand for emergency food support between February and March – 17 times higher than the same period a year ago.
- In a follow up survey conducted by Labour councillors in Adur District in West Sussex, to gauge the extent of the problems being experienced by schools and families receiving the vouchers, eleven Adur schools responding to a telephone and e-mail survey from the local Labour Party reported serious problems.
- Problems identified, included:
- School staff having to work up to midnight or getting up at 5.30 in the morning to get orders for vouchers accepted – the online system is just too slow in normal working hours
- orders undelivered
- delays of up to three days in getting vital vouchers to families
- staff having to go back to square one of a lengthy process to reorder if a voucher is not received or an email has been entered wrongly.
- failures when parents try use the voucher in a shop.
- issues for parents who do not have a printer at home to print-off their vouchers
- School staff members described the system as “convoluted” and “unkind”. One said it was the “the single most frustrating, sometimes heart-breaking and time-consuming task” they had undertaken as a school secretary.
- One school secretary told Labour councillors they have had to get up at half past five in the morning at the weekend to log in at home to order vouchers for families, the only time they were able to access the system.
- While maintained schools run by the county council who are subject to a corporate catering contract with the council have been providing hot meals for all children in the school who are attending, this does not extend to many of the schools in West Sussex, who are not included in that agreement, which constitutes many of them.
- In his letter to the Cabinet Member, Cllr Jones expressed his concern about the general situation but also his worries that parents in families eligible for free school meal vouchers who may not have been able to access these satisfactorily may have felt obliged to return their children to school despite this not necessarily being either what the family wants or indeed in their health interests due to the continuing COVID-19 crisis. He also expressed his concern about the rising levels of fining in West Sussex, with the most recent figures available for the year 2018/19 being well out of line with other authorities in the South East, which could be an additional factor.
- In his letter, Cllr Jones told the Cabinet Member: “You will be aware that in some cases last month it was being left to schools to find a solution to ensure its pupils are not going hungry. The briefing you circulated last month has not reassured me that a satisfactory solution is in place for all pupils in the County. I am therefore seeking confirmation that you are personally satisfied that every West Sussex pupil who are entitled to free school meals and who not in school because of the lockdown situation are in receipt of adequate meal provision, or an alternative in the form of funding or vouchers.”
- Cllr Jones also called on the Cabinet Member to write to urge the Tory Government to retain the free school meal voucher scheme during this time, due to the extraordinarily difficult circumstances these families are facing through the Covid-19 crisis and to oppose announcement by the Secretary of State that this will be removed beginning with the summer holidays.
It’s extremely clear to me that although there was meant to be a system in place that ensured everyone eligible received the vouchers, there have been serious shortcomings. Cllr Michael Jones
Speaking after sending the letter to the Cabinet Member, Labour Group Leader on West Sussex County Council Michael Jones said: “In fact, there has been a litany of failure. Rather than shrugging its shoulders, the county council needs to step in and help address these problems and ensure we are looking after many of our families here in West Sussex. The additional concern over families being fined for absences also needs a clear message from the council and reassurance that people are not going to be penalised in this time of crisis for putting their families’ safety first.”
Labour Adur District Councillor Lavinia O’Connor (Southlands), who has been campaigning strongly on this issue which has affected many of the families in her ward and more widely in the Adur District, agreed with Councillor Jones, adding: “Without the extreme extra effort that is being put in by school staff this chaotic system would be an absolute failure and many of our most vulnerable families would be suffering real hunger. Some staff are at their wits end as this is such a time-consuming and frustrating exercise.
“Edenred was contracted by the government to distribute food vouchers valued at up to £234m during the Covid-19 lockdown. But the project has been dogged by problems nationally from delays in getting vouchers to families to vouchers not being accepted by supermarkets.
“It’s callous and outrageous that families with children are being treated this way. Who knows how many parents have had to join the increasing numbers going to foodbanks so their children can eat. The government needs to get a grip.”