It takes only a few delays at the cash till or serving hatch for the lunch break at Ponteland Middle School to spill over into class time - a problem experienced by many schools where take-up of the meals service is high. But when pupils started using plastic swipe cards to pay for their meals, the hold-ups disappeared.
The TrackCard system the school used for a trial period works like a debit card. Parents can pay in advance by cheque for their children's meals - and decide how much they want to pay. These amounts are logged into a central computer. When children come to pay for their food, catering staff swipe their cards through an electronic till which debits each child's account. Queues are not held up by children rummaging for cash or staff having to count out change.
Bill Oliver, Ponteland's head, first came across a similar system on an exchange visit to France, where he was impressed by how quickly the canteen managed to handle large numbers of children.
Of his own school's experiment with TrackCard, he says: "This system saved us on average between 10 and 12 minutes each day, without a shadow of a doubt. It meant that lunchtime became a more manageable block of time for us and for the dinner ladies, and the children, I think, quite enjoyed the responsibility of looking after a card."
Ponteland is one of four schools in Northumberland where the local authority's direct labour organisation recently tried out cashless payment systems. Northumberland Contracting was seeking a system that would increase take-up of school meals by providing pupils with a faster service. The organisation also wanted to cut down on cash collections from schools - an area where it had identified possible savings when tendering for the county's school meals contract.
"At the moment we have to have cash collected daily," explains Colin Logan, Northumberland Contracting's finance and commercial manager. "If we can get parents to pay in advance, even if they just pay weekly, we'll only have to bank once a week. There are also cash-flow benefits for the authority in doing this."
He points out that schools also benefit. Children who receive free school meals cannot be identified and stigmatised, while parents who pay by cheque know their money will not be spent in chip shops.
Cards are also less likely to be stolen than cash, especially if they identify users by name. But school managers involved in the Northumberland trials are sceptical about some manufacturers' claims that such systems can stop bullying.
Ian Robertson, deputy head of Ashington High School, which tested a system that does not name cardholders, says: "I think it probably does reduce bullying to a certain extent, but not as much as the companies would have us believe. There are a lot of ways of bullying and taking money. It's possible, for example, to make somebody load money on to your card."
Card systems fall into two main categories. With the one used at Ponteland, details of every transaction are stored on a central computer. Lost cards can easily be cancelled and replaced without pupils losing any of their money.
The off-line GiroVend system used at Ashington, on the other hand, is more like a Phonecard where the value is recorded on the card itself. This allows users to top up the value of their cards very easily, but it also means there is no simple way of recovering the cash value of a lost card.
Ashington High had few problems with lost cards. Pupils or teachers who left their cards at home were able to use the cash loading machine in the school hall to put their money on to somebody else's card.
But because the trials revealed concerns about children losing money, Northumberland Contracting has decided on an on-line system with central records.
Schools in the trials used swipe cards only in their canteens. With some systems it is also possible to use the cards to gain access to school buildings, borrow library books and register for lessons.
If the experience of Ashington High School and Ponteland Middle School is anything to go by, parents, pupils and catering staff will have little trouble switching over from cash to plastic.
Ponteland's head, Bill Oliver, says: "The attraction of the system was its simplicity. Once kitchen staff had been trained to use it they had no problems and I feel that their response to this kind of trial was critical. They were very keen to use the system because it made their jobs much easier."