Ministers have drawn up a back-up plan to provide free school meal vouchers in case schools are forced to close again over the coming year.
Wonde, an edtech firm, won the year-long contract in December to provide a “contingency scheme” for the Department for Education in the event of Covid-19 attendance restrictions or national school closures.
It means multinational company Edenred, which won contracts totalling £425 million to run the scheme during earlier lockdowns, is no longer involved.
Edenred stopped providing vouchers on behalf of DfE in July, and a new competitive procurement round began in October. It is not clear if Edenred bid.
Last year’s scheme was heavily criticised for initial distribution delays, the appointment of Edenred without an open tender and value-for-money concerns.
Under the new plan, Wonde will be given five days’ notice to launch their voucher scheme for up to 1.7 million pupils. The company will only be paid if the services are used.
The firm had already built up its own voucher system before the Edenred scheme was launched in the first lockdown. It has provided vouchers to 11,500 schools since the start of the pandemic.
Peter Dabrowa, Wonde’s chief executive, said the company was “proud” to be the new vouchers platform. “It’s great that DfE is being proactive and having a solid contingency plan in place which we hope won’t be needed, and it doesn’t look like that’s the case moving forward.”
If vouchers are needed again, parents will see changes to the way they are distributed, compared to the previous programme.
Under the old scheme, parents were sent a code from their school or local authority before redeeming it through a website, all over email.
But Wonde has developed a phone application for parents, who can also choose to receive a text. Vouchers would be assigned by schools and links sent directly to parents, who could then select a supermarket.
An Edenred spokesperson said the company had supported 20,350 schools, delivering £483 million vouchers, with satisfaction rates of 94 per cent from parents and 90 per cent from schools.
“We are proud to have achieved this while ensuring every penny of taxpayers’ money was translated into the equivalent value in vouchers.”
A DfE spokesperson said it “routinely considers contingency arrangements in line with government coronavirus planning”.