Gerald Haigh reports on a new school payment system that doesn't rely on children handing over crumpled envelopes
You can pay for just about everything online now, including your income tax and your holiday (although in this case perhaps one will preclude the other). Why, then, when your child's school asks for money, can you not click your mouse and enter your credit card details? It would help you, and it would certainly help the school, because you're at both ends of the same problem, which is to get cash (or sometimes cheques) from home, into the school office, via the decidedly non-electronic medium of a child's pocket or school bag. Parents can always call personally of course, but that's hardly 21st century technology either.
The biggest problem, as it's frequent and regular, is dinner money payment.
Allyson Lloyd, catering contracts manager at Croydon local Authority, says:
"The system hasn't changed for donkeys' years. It's labour intensive, inaccurate and laborious. You're asking parents to send in an amount in an envelope with the child, and then you're chasing up and down the corridor looking for the five pence that got lost on the way."
A "cashless catering" system does improve things by removing cash from the office, but the wall-mounted machines that refresh each child's account still need to be fed with cash or cheques brought from home.
It doesn't end there, either. In every school there'll be days when other money is coming in - for trips, residential visits, charity appeals, uniform and so on. Most of this will come through the crumpled envelope in the child's pocket.
It's this problem that ParentPay, designed by Lynne Taylor, sets out to solve. Lynne is a software writer and assessment consultant with a track record of producing systems, such as "AssessIt", that show anunderstanding of how schools work (she was a teacher for 18 years).
Essentially, ParentPay is an online payment system for schools. A parent wanting to pay for dinners, for example, calls up the ParentPay website, logs on with a password that takes him or her to the right school, then follows the prompts to make the appropriate credit card transaction, which then updates the child's dinner money account. If the school has a cashless catering system - any of the main brands are compatible - there's a link to it that obviates the need for a parent or child to "feed" a revaluation machine with cash or cheques. As you'd expect, there's high-level security of the kind used by all reputable online businesses.
At St Peter's Primary, one of the Croydon schools currently using ParentPay, it's transformed the life of administrator Kate Menys, who recalls that, before cashless catering and ParentPay, she would have to count and balance pound;500 worth of cash each week.
"We changed to a cashless system last spring," she says. "Then in November we started with ParentPay. People began using it very quickly to pay dinner money. They also pay for school trips, music lessons and the after-school club."
With 70 percent of St Peter's families using the system, and the number steadily increasing, it's evident that ParentPay works well for parents - one or two previously regular late payers now pay promptly or even in advance, and some parents put a whole term's dinners on their credit cards.
Parents like being able to call up the system and see when, and how much, they last paid. Bad debt has ceased to be a problem, and the task of reconciling the figures at the end of the year has become much easier.
School and parent-friendly extra features are being added to ParentPay all the time. "For example," says Kate, "when there's a new school trip, I can email registered users of ParentPay from the system to tell them how much it costs."
The big payback, though, is in school administration. The time that Kate used to spend chasing dinner money she now uses to keep an eye on attendance - checking reasons for absence and phoning parents.
"As a result, we now have zero unauthorised absence," she says. "It shows that my time is better used now."
There is, of course, the question of families who don't have internet access. They're very much a minority which can only get smaller. Even so, their needs - and those who simply don't want to use an online payment system - are in the developer's mind, and soon there'll be the facility to enter ParentPay via the electronic pay points that are already available in many local shops for paying council and energy bills.
A step beyond that, and still under development by Lynne Taylor, is "mealScene". "It'll come in phases," says Lynne. "The first allows individual schools to display their meal menus online and do simple data analysis of nutritional content."
Phases beyond that will progressively open up and use the pupil-parent-meal-nutrition-payment network, with lots of implications for parents who not only want to know what children are eating, but also have some say over it, in a debate involving children and teachers.
ParentPay enables schools, nurseries and other childcare providers to accept payments by credit and debit card over the internet. Through a secure website, state and independent schools, local authorities and private nurseries can start accepting credit card payments easily and quickly.
ParentPay accepts all major credit cards and debit cards online, there's no software or hardware to buy or install, it integrates with all major cashless catering and cashless payment systems, settles funds to any UK bank account and integrates directly with all school MIS software, including Capita SIMS, SIMS.net, Pearson Phoenix, CMIS and PASS from WCBS.
Price: pound;200 set-up, annual subscription pound;200 plus pound;1 per pupil. Local authority deals available.
Tel: 01926 777737 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org