DfE 'can't prevent' schools buying half-term meal vouchers

The government’s refusal to roll out the free meal voucher scheme over the May half-term break is meaningless because they are unable to prevent schools from buying vouchers, it has been claimed.

Ministers said they have “no plans to extend the scheme into future holiday periods”. However, school business managers and food campaigners have pointed out that the online ordering system is unlikely to be able to check whether schools have ordered for that period.

The national scheme was launched at the end of March. Schools can order £15 weekly vouchers for children eligible for free school meals. But the system, run by Edenred, has been fraught with delays and technical glitches.

As part of efforts to speed up the supply of vouchers, the government told schools they can order vouchers up to four weeks in advance, meaning that schools can technically order vouchers to cover the May half-term break.

School business leader Hilary Goldsmith said the system “only asks when you want the vouchers to start from, and the value to pay. You don’t have to show the period you’re ordering for, the number of children per family, or any detail.

“To think that someone in Whitehall is going to plough through a million orders and try to match them to any sort of national FSM list and tally them up by weeks is pretty ludicrous.”

Another headteacher tweeted recently that their current four-week block of vouchers runs out the week before half-term, “so we will order again for four weeks. If it changes to ‘yes’ for over half-term, great, we’ll just order the next lot a week early, and if not, still have an option for a sandwich every day and our food parcels”.

School food campaigner Andy Jolley said the Edenred service “certainly doesn’t look equipped to check if schools are ordering vouchers for half-term.

“The DfE is relying on schools to be honest, but schools have no patience with DfE or Edenred any more.”

Schools Week asked the DfE and Edenred whether they had any way of preventing schools from ordering vouchers for the half term period, or whether they would be penalised for doing so. The department did not respond, and Edenred referred the question back to the DfE.

The government had extended the provision over the Easter holidays, but said there are “no plans to extend the scheme into future holiday periods”.

The education committee has demanded children’s minster Vicky Ford set out the government’s plans for entitlement to vouchers up until September, including holiday periods.