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2 June 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 10:46am

How a botched government food voucher scheme left English pupils hungry in a pandemic

As some primary schools reopen, there are concerns about government incompetence.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On 9 April, the school administrator at St George’s Community Primary in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, was awake at 2am ahead of the Easter bank holiday weekend, poring over her computer.

For three whole days, she had been trying to access food vouchers for a list of families on a system run by Edenred, the supplier awarded a £234m school meal voucher contract without a tendering process by the Department for Education to provide food for children on free school meals during lockdown.

“She was constantly locked out of it, it wasn’t letting her access it at all,” says headteacher Katie Barry.

After days of being unable to access the system, periodically being locked out of it, she finally managed to log on when she happened to check her computer at midnight. She then sat at her desk between midnight and two in the morning, registering the details of all 27 families at her school who needed access to food during lockdown.

Parents were then supposed to be emailed voucher codes – but they didn’t receive them until 22 April.

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“Even then, they were still in a queue, and some of our parents were telling us they would go on [the site] and be number 3,000 or something,” recalls Barry. “So the whole thing took about three weeks.”

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Over 70 per cent of her school’s children are entitled to free school meals. “We have parents who have very little access to the internet, so they can’t go and sit and wait on a website whilst it refreshes itself for hours – they don’t have the data to be able to do that,” she adds.

When they finally received the vouchers, some of the families had “problems at the till” with trying to use them to pay for their shopping.

“For over three weeks, the families haven’t got the money they’re entitled to for their children’s food.”

Fortunately for pupils at St George’s, the school had kept its kitchen open for serving hot meals every day, so those who did not have to self-isolate could receive a meal a day by visiting the school at lunchtime. It had also set up its own version of a foodbank, providing donated goods to families without food.

Yet children at other schools have gone hungry under this system that struggled to cope with demand, as corroborated by reports in Schools Week and an investigation by the Human Rights Watch NGO.

Although the system appears to have improved, having ironed out most of the issues after weeks of problems, it does not bode well for headteachers juggling the logistical and safety issues of reopening during a pandemic.

“The system was awful,” says Alex Rawlings, headteacher of Quarry Bank primary school in Dudley, West Midlands. “It just didn’t work and still isn’t working [for everyone].”

For four or five weeks, his school could not guarantee their pupils food through the Edenred voucher scheme. On week two of using the scheme, Rawlings recalls a family with a few children calling the school saying they hadn’t even received the first week’s voucher yet.

After four weeks, they finally received £120 worth of backed-up vouchers (they cover £15 a week per child), but “that was no good to them” in the weeks beforehand, laments Rawlings.

He estimates that by mid-May, only a sixth of the vouchers required by his pupils had been received. There are around 100 children out of 370 entitled to free school meals at his school.

“I feel terribly guilty because I know there’s a system behind me that isn’t helping anybody,” he says, describing hours spent on hold trying to get through to Edenred customer service on the phone, and dealing with its “painfully slow” website tthat would time out and crash.

Quarry Bank staff even bought supermarket vouchers themselves for a handful of families in exceptional circumstances. “That in itself was difficult because you couldn’t do that times a hundred, so who and how do you choose? It was very stressful.”

As well as fall-out from the system’s early failings, distrust endures over the government’s general approach to feeding schoolchildren.

For example, schools were unaware they had to buy vouchers over the Easter holidays until Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove unexpectedly announced at a No 10 press conference on 4 April that vouchers would be provided over the break as well as term time.

“Why weren’t we told before the holidays?” asks Rawlings. “Every headteacher in the country then tried to get on the system straight away – and spent two weeks of the Easter holidays just trying to buy vouchers.”

Similarly, a belated U-turn by the Department for Education on 27 May – halfway through the most recent half-term – put schools on the backfoot by announcing it would cover the cost of school meal vouchers over the break. Many schools had already assumed costs wouldn’t be covered, and had told parents as much. On the day of that announcement, one headteacher told me: “There is no way that the vouchers will arrive with families before the end of half-term.”

They put this misstep down to a lack of coordination. “It will now just mean parents expecting a voucher won’t receive one in a timely manner”, and may then question schools’ competence just as they are expected to entrust them with their children’s safety.

“The previous announcement before Easter closures cut it fine,” commented Kartik Raj, the Human Rights Watch researcher who investigated the story. “Announcing this once the half-term break has started could mean by the time school staff request the vouchers and families redeem the electronic codes, it’ll be June. Kids can’t eat belated vouchers.”

In both cases, if schools had been given prior warning, they could have begun to register for vouchers on the already-slow system much earlier. Such lack of coordination can make them feel alone in their fight against the virus as they reopen.

“I understand how nobody was prepared for this, this hasn’t been around before. However, getting food into children’s bellies is just a basic human right,” says Barry. “We’re here to help children learn, but they can’t learn if they’re hungry and parents are not eating themselves so that their children can eat… There should have been something much simpler put in place.”

“It really catches in the throat how the government are saying how they’re feeding families,” says Rawlings. “They’re just not.”

A spokesperson for Edenred says:

“The free school meals voucher scheme operated by Edenred on behalf of the DfE has successfully put £120m of eGift cards into the hands of families since its launch, equivalent to eight million weekly meal allowances for eligible children.

“The scheme was set up and launched with a turnaround time of just ten days and today 17,500 schools are using it, a number which has grown consistently since launch.

“In the weeks after the launch we acknowledge some schools and families faced delays in the distribution of their vouchers or delays with this new scheme. These problems were eliminated by the end of April while by which point the scheme had fulfilled £40m of eGift orders or 2.7m weekly meal allowances.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education says:

“As schools open more widely, and their kitchens reopen, we expect schools to make food parcels available for collection or delivery for any children that are eligible for free school meals who are not yet able to return to school. Where this is not possible, schools can continue to offer vouchers to eligible pupils.

“As of Monday 1 June, Edenred has reported that over £120m worth of codes has been redeemed into vouchers by schools and families through the scheme.”