The private company supplying free school meals vouchers during the coronavirus lockdown says 40,000 families did not receive vouchers because schools supplied incorrect email addresses.
The claim comes in a progress report to MPs from Edenred on problems with the scheme it is running for the Department for Education, seen by Tes.
The company says it will be "engaging directly" with schools and the DfE about "poor data which has been logged into the system by schools resulting in c.40,000 (3.5 per cent) hard email bounces".
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It adds: "We are aware that a significant number of the email addresses that Edenred was supplied with were incorrect or inaccurate, and we therefore received some bouncebacks from our communication. This has meant around 40,000 families have not been able to access the FSM they are entitled to.
"We have now emailed all 6,100 of the schools where we have identified hard bounce data, and have flagged those still with errors to schools so they can easily see these within the system."
The report follows criticisms of the company over "lengthy delays" in the vouchers getting through – while headteachers and school business managers were said to have been spending “hours” on the phone or online trying to get through to the company.
However, critics say the company is now trying to lay blame on schools for its own failure.
School business leadership consultant Hilary Goldsmith said: “Schools email parents on a regular basis, sharing information, updates and news. It's our main method of communication.
“For Edenred, whose communication with schools has been non-existent, to say that the errors in their system have been down to schools providing wrong email addresses is laughable.
“The problem is not with us, and this feeble attempt to blame schools for their own failure is a disgrace.
“Edenred should by issuing a national apology to the schools and families it has failed. No one, not even MPs, will believe this 'dog ate my homework' excuse.”
Edenred also said in its report that it was advising parents against the use of Microsoft Internet Explorer, which is a discontinued browser, but instead encouraging use of alternatives such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge or Apple Safari. And it says it is encouraging schools to make “more efficient use of the system”, for example by ordering multiple weeks’ worth of vouchers in advance.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The problem with the national free school meal vouchers scheme is simple. The Edenred website was unable to cope with demand and schools were unable to obtain vouchers on behalf of struggling families.
"The level of need should have been anticipated because we know the number of children requiring free school meals. We hope that lessons are learned for the future.”
Free school meals campaigner Andy Jolley said: “The assumption that FSM parents all have emails and schools will know them demonstrates just how naive those developing their system were.”
An Edenred spokesperson said: “To say Edenred is ‘blaming’ schools for the portion of vouchers which could not be delivered to families is an entirely false interpretation of the work we have been doing to put vouchers in the hands of the families who need them.
"Soon after the launch of the scheme, we identified that one of the reasons that families and schools did not receive vouchers was because they couldn’t be delivered to the email address supplied – something that schools would only be aware of when ecodes were reported missing by parents.
"To prevent this happening and reduce the frustration this was causing, we identified every school affected and contacted them to advise how they could ensure the families concerned could get their vouchers as quickly as possible.
"In our report to parliamentarians we are being open about the challenges we faced in the early weeks of the scheme, one of which was data. To infer or report that we are blaming from this submission completely misrepresents the information contained in it.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “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 Wednesday 3 June, Edenred has reported that over £129 million worth of codes has been redeemed into vouchers by schools and families through the scheme.”