DfE letting 'families suffer' by ignoring help on national free meal voucher scheme

The government has been lambasted for allowing families to “suffer” by an edtech firm whose offer to help deliver free meal vouchers alongside the overwhelmed national scheme was ignored.

Schools Week revealed last week that the Department for Education had not responded to offers from Wonde to help ensure families in poverty were receiving vouchers after massive problems with the national system. Its website has been overwhelmed by demand, leaving schools unable to book vouchers and parents waiting weeks to redeem them.

In an explosive letter sent to the Department for Education last week, seen by Schools Week, Wonde said it had “several calls” with officials about its capability to “provide help immediately” at “no cost”.

Peter Dabrowa, Wonde chief executive, said in the letter: “Every hour matters in this crisis and families are clearly being affected by not receiving vouchers in reasonable timescales, if at all. This is not a time for any government department to turn down help from companies who can rapidly respond.

“We are not prepared to sit back and watch families suffer when we can help, at no additional cost to the DfE and no cost to the schools/families.”

It comes as school staff continued to report issues with the system again this week – despite claims from the government they are “turning it around”.

Wonde has added its voice to those in the sector calling for the government to allow all schools that choose to use a different voucher scheme to claim the funding back.

Current guidance suggests schools will only be reimbursed where they are unable to cover any extra costs on different voucher schemes from their existing budget.

Vouchers under the national scheme are paid for by the Treasury.

Dabrowa added: “If you can give clear guidance on whether schools will be reimbursed for using our service, it will enable us to immediately help existing schools and those struggling with alternative arrangements.”

He added that “quite frankly it is heartbreaking given that parents are struggling to feed their children through these challenging and unprecedented times”.

Wonde, which already provides vouchers to more than 4,000 schools, said it has capacity to “help 10,000 more schools”.

It comes as the department revealed, in a parliamentary question response, that they do not pay Edenred a fee to provide the service.

When asked about what commission Edenred charge, children’s minister Vicky Ford said: “The department does not comment on the commercial arrangements of third parties but can confirm that we are only paying for the face value of goods delivered – in this case, vouchers.”

Edenred would not comment on the specific commercial arrangements, but Schools Week understands that their income is derived from taking a small percentage on each voucher issued.

Schools Week has been told the industry norm is around four per cent per voucher, but it’s understood the percentage slice taken by Edenred is below this figure. However the firm would not provide specific details.

As of Monday, Edenred reported over £29m worth of voucher codes had been issued to schools and families. 

However schools and parents are still reporting problems redeeming these from the firm’s website.

The department said the scheme was “set up at pace to support families following school closures, and we continue to work closely with our supplier to resolve early technical issues.

“We thank schools for their patience while the system is upgraded to meet increased demand.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson is due to be questioned on the scheme at the education select committee this morning.