An official watchdog has revealed how the government knew of “risks” with Edenred – despite awarding it the contract to provide free school meal vouchers to more than 1.4 million pupils after schools closed in March.
A National Audit Office (NAO) report published today highlights how the Department for Education “placed substantial reliance” on the firm yet had “limited evidence about its capacity to deliver the voucher scheme to the pace and scale required”
It states: “The department recognised that the choice of supplier, speed of implementation and uncertainty about likely take-up of the scheme created risks.”
As was reported by Tes in April, more than a week after the scheme’s launch, the majority of schools and families across the country had still not received the supermarket vouchers, worth £15-a-week for each eligible pupil, while headteachers and school business managers were spending hours on the phone or online trying to obtain them.
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And more than six weeks after the launch, the Commons Education Select Committee wrote to the DfE spelling out its concerns over “a significant number of reports about lengthy delays being experienced by schools and parents trying to obtain the vouchers”.
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Today's NAO report states that the government itself added to the “pressure” on Edenred by making the decision to extend the vouchers scheme over Easter without telling the firm. It says the firm had planned to use the holiday period to process outstanding orders and make adjustments to its systems to improve performance.
The report reveals how, on 30 April, a month after the scheme’s launch, there was a telephone call between education secretary Gavin Williamson and Edenred’s chief executive, in which the firm was pressed into making a series of improvements, including a plan to bring in external technical experts, if necessary.
The NAO also highlights how Edenred had “insufficient” IT capacity. However, it states that the company took action to upgrade its IT systems, and the time taken to process orders fell from almost five days in April to “a matter of hours” by July.
Head of the NAO Gareth Davies said: "Problems at the start of the scheme led to a frustrating experience for many schools and families, but DfE and Edenred worked hard to get on top of these issues. Performance steadily improved as the scheme progressed."
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said the system had been “inadequate” and had created “huge amounts of stress and frustration”.
“We received hundreds of emails and phone calls from our members saying that the online system for delivering vouchers simply wasn’t working – it was overwhelmed," he added.
"School leaders, and school business leaders in particular, spent hours and hours trying to get the website to work, often staying up until the early hours of the morning”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “While we appreciate the challenge of setting up a national free school meals voucher scheme in difficult circumstances, the launch of the Edenred system went way beyond a few teething problems, and felt to schools more like a meltdown.
“It is difficult to work out why this level of demand was not anticipated by the Department for Education or Edenred, as the number of children claiming free school meals is hardly a secret.
“Even in the constrained timeframe involved, it should have been possible to do better than the chaos which ensued.”
The DfE’s children and families minister, Vicky Ford, said: “The NAO has recognised the swift action we took so that eligible children could access this important provision while schools were partially closed, with £380 million worth of voucher codes having been redeemed into supermarket gift cards by the time the scheme ended.”
An Edenred spokesperson said: “Today’s report recognises how Edenred delivered a scheme of unique scale for the DfE which the majority of parents said worked well and which translated every pound of public money into vouchers for children who needed them.
"The report is fair in its reflection of the challenges faced in the first four weeks and we welcome the recognition of the hard work and investment we put into solving those problems, resulting in improvements to a scheme which delivered for parents and schools in the final four months of the programme, when it saw the greatest demand.”