Headteachers and school business managers are spending hours on the phone or online trying to obtain free school meals vouchers in a new scheme that is “broken every step of the way”.
Despite the scheme being launched on 31 March, the majority of schools and families across the country are still said to have not received the supermarket vouchers, worth £15-a-week for each eligible child.
One school said it ran up a mobile phone bill of £89 trying to get through to supplier Edenred on its premium rate number.
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Schools business manager Hilary Goldsmith, who is currently running a poll on Twitter asking what stage schools are at with the vouchers, said only 10 per cent of respondents reported they had received them so far.
She said her main concerns were that heads and business managers were unable to upload files into the system or were being told their applications had been processed - but vouchers were still not being delivered to families.
She said: “The scheme has been rushed out. Not enough thought has been given to how the system will cope with a massive amount of use. It’s broken every step of the way.
“There’s no online support for when things go wrong. Heads and business managers are sitting in front of computers or on the phone for hours, and they’re getting very frustrated. They’re spending days trying to sort this out when they had, in fact, already solved the problem by finding their own providers before being told to use this national scheme.”
The new scheme is supposed to allow schools to provide vouchers to families electronically, or as a gift card for those without internet access. They can be spent on food at a range of shops including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We have heard from members that many of them are having real difficulties accessing the vouchers through the national scheme. It is imperative that the DfE work closely with supplier in question to address this matter swiftly.”
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are aware that many schools and colleges are experiencing significant issues in accessing the national scheme for free school meals.
“We have flagged this up to the Department for Education as an urgent issue. It has responded with information about how to check on the progress of orders for vouchers and we are circulating this information to our members this afternoon.
“This is clearly a frustrating situation and we will continue to monitor developments and respond accordingly.”
Schools calling Edenred on their 0843 number, be warned- cost is 13p/min on landlines approx, can be more than 65p per min on mobiles. One of our schools found this out to their cost- called from a mobile and bill is £89! Use email instead! @EducationDataH1 @clarewilson35— Claire Archibald (@Archibfam) April 6, 2020
Meanwhile, Ms Goldsmith said some schools were “taking a gamble” in using other free school meals schemes, including Wonde and Sodexo, in the hope the government would reimburse them.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know that the free school meal voucher system is working for thousands of schools and voucher codes are already being processes and distributed to families.
"We are working tirelessly with Edenred to resolve any outstanding technical problems so that children eligible for free schools meals are supported quickly.
"We thanks schools for their patience while we expand the system to meet the high demand.”
The DfE also offered schools the following advice:
- All schools have been issued with their free school meal activation email by Edenred. Schools should check their junk email folders in the first instance and that the contact details the Department for Education holds for their school are up to date. If contact details are not up to date with the DfE then schools should email Edenred at firstname.lastname@example.org to have the code resent.
- A new Edenred phone number (0333 400 5932) has been set up specifically for the DfE’s national voucher scheme. Calling this number will cost no more than the national rate.
- If a school’s order shows as ‘paid’, the order is being processed before being generated as an eCode and passed to ‘fulfilled’.
- If a school’s order shows as ‘fulfilled’, eCodes are being emailed out and should be received within 24 hours. For all order statuses marked as ‘fulfilled’, Edenred has resent all eCodes today (Thursday) to make sure these are received.
- While schools are encouraged to use the national voucher scheme, they are best placed to determine what is appropriate in their local context. For schools preferring to using their own voucher scheme, costs can be reimbursed through the government’s schools fund.
- Further information can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance.