Schools can start delivering free school meals or food vouchers to newly-eligible pupils before they receive “evidence” of universal credit claims, the children’s minister has said.
Vicky Ford appeared by video link in front of the Parliamentary education committee this morning, and was quizzed about the ongoing free school meals fiasco.
It is up to each school, and always has been, to add the pupils that they believe to be entitled onto the system
Asked about pupils who previously did not qualify for free school meals but have become eligible during the pandemic because of a change in their family’s financial position, Ford said schools “have the ability to add more people into that system as they know they become vulnerable”.
However, not all families on universal credit are eligible for free school meals because of a £7,400 annual income threshold.
Ford said today: “We’re working with [the Department for Work and Pensions] on seeing if we can hasten the process, but it is up to each school, and always has been, to add the pupils that they believe to be entitled onto the system.
“So they are doing the absolute right thing to make sure they get them food, and then when you get the evidence coming through that becomes more official.”
Pressed on whether schools could provide meals and vouchers before families received their universal credit payments, Ford confirmed they could.
“The school can give them the food earlier, before the whole payment comes through. I understand that this is going to be challenging with a lot more people registering than before.”
The minister also revealed she had set up an email address for MPs to report problems with the free school meals voucher system in their areas, urging them to “bear with us”.
Heads and school business managers have labelled the system a “fiasco” after they faced lengthy waits just to access the website, with families in poverty waiting weeks for their vouchers.
“There were glitches at the beginning. I completely understand that. Nobody had ever set up a voucher system like this before,” Ford told MPs.
“Over the Easter weekend, Edenred rebuilt their computer system in order to be able to process more vouchers more quickly.
“There’s obviously a lot of demand on the system again this week because of the end of the school holidays, but we are encouraging the schools to put in repeat vouchers so that they can order more than one, they don’t have to do it every week, they can send out repeat vouchers.”
Following the news yesterday that Aldi had been added to the list of supermarkets where vouchers were valid, Ford said the DfE could “only add supermarkets onto the system when they have the technology at every single checkout in every single one of their schools to be able to process those vouchers”.
“I wish we could add more,” she added.
She also described the national voucher system as a “backup”, and said the money was “there” for schools to claim back for using their own systems.
“The best practice that schools should be doing is keeping their local provider that they had and ensuring that they are in touch and getting food to their children who are entitled to it locally.
“The voucher system is there as a backup and as a support to help, and it’s got hundreds of thousands of families are being supported in that way.
“So in a local rural area, being able to continue with your local provider and have your eyes on those children as you deliver that food is really important.”
She added: “The money for schools to continue to provide their own school meals system is there, and if they use the national voucher, that goes directly to the Treasury, they don’t even need to get the bill and then get it back from us.”
However there is confusion about whether schools can claim back money for using other voucher providers.
Government guidance states additional spend on coronavirus issues – such as providing free school meals – will only be reimbursed if schools are unable to cover the costs from their existing budget.
Furthermore, reimbursed costs only apply to those where schools are providing free school meal support to children for whom the national voucher scheme is inappropriate – for example because there are “no participating supermarkets locally or schools are providing meals directly”.