The Department for Education has been branded “beyond incompetent” after doing a U-turn on its decision not to fund the free school meals voucher scheme over half-term.
The DfE said earlier this month that the scheme was term-time-only and that schools should make their own local arrangements where appropriate for half-term.
However, schools standards minister Nick Gibb told the Commons Education Select Committee this morning that the scheme, run by private supplier Edenred, would be funded after all.
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School business manager Hilary Goldsmith said lots of schools had already decided to fund FSM themselves over half-term.
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But she added: “For those who didn't, to be told that they effectively now have to order them, on the Wednesday of the half-term they were supposed to cover, is beyond incompetent.”
Mr Gibb told the committee that children’s minister Vicky Ford had been “personally extremely active and busy” in dealing with the problems of the scheme, including waiting times, and that Edenred had brought in extra technical support and expanded the capability of its website to deal with demand.
He said: “In terms of the Whitsun half-term, what Vicky has said in her letter [to the committee] is that the costs of the national voucher scheme will continue to be met by the department over the half-term break.”
Free school meals campaigner Andy Jolley said disadvantaged families could miss out on vouchers because of the lateness of the announcement. He said: “Had the DfE provided some notice, schools would have been able to order vouchers in advance. Now, in the middle of half term, they are left scrambling around to order vouchers, hoping the EdenRed system holds up.
“Either it’s utter incompetence from ministers or they made a calculated decision to delay the announcement so as few people knew about as possible. When were schools told? Answer is they weren’t.”
The Department for Education said the decision was not a U-turn because it was always being "kept under review".
A spokesperson said: “Costs of the national voucher scheme to provide free school meals for eligible pupils will continue to be met by DfE over the May half-term break.”