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How the government’s free school meals voucher scheme is leaving children without food

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“I’ve got nothing. No milk, no bread, no food, nothing.”

That was the voicemail message a school received from a sobbing parent who had been waiting two weeks for her free school meal vouchers to arrive.

My shopping costs have gone up by £30-£40 a week with the children home. These vouchers are needed…it’s making life difficult

Another mother told Schools Week she could only afford one meal a day for herself, so she could feed her children, as she was unable to access the £60 of vouchers from the national scheme’s overwhelmed website.

She’s one of potentially hundreds of thousands of parents missing out on support to feed their children while schools are closed after the Edenred website failed to cope with demand.

School leaders have said some parents are still yet to receive vouchers – three weeks after the scheme was launched – despite the government insisting all orders up to April 19 have now been issued.

The website, which was taken offline at Easter for an upgrade, also continues to be overwhelmed. Staff were told to wait in hour-long queues just to get into the site.

Meanwhile, teachers are donating food for emergency parcels or sending parents to foodbanks.

It’s also emerged that the government ignored an offer from a firm to help boost the national scheme’s capacity, despite knowing parents in poverty had been waiting weeks for support.

An investigation by Schools Week today reveals the damning stories of those parents left without food.

 

‘I’ve not received vouchers for two weeks – can you please get in touch with me?’

The government’s messaging this week has been that early problems with its national free meal voucher system are well in the past.

In a blog post, the DfE said they “know that for a large number of schools, the system is working”.

Andy Hudson, from the Department for Education’s pupil premium and school food division, told schools the Edenred website was “really starting to fly” after the “early difficulties”.

But on the ground, school staff tell a different story.

More than half of the 271 free school meal pupils at Weston Favell Academy, in Northampton, were still waiting for their first voucher, ordered in the first week of the Easter holidays.

The school’s data manager, Cindy Miles, said one pupil’s parent had called the school in tears. She told them: “I have not received my vouchers on email. For two weeks, can you please get in touch with me? I’ve got nothing, no milk, no bread, no food, nothing.”

Miles said the call was “heartbreaking”. The school bought its own vouchers, and a food parcel, which was delivered direct to the family.

But continuing issues accessing the website this week has left Miles unable to check which parents have vouchers.

She said the school had instead been calling parents “every day, but we’re completely helpless. It’s awful.”

Siobhan Morris, a mother-of-two from Wembley, north London, said she had vouchers worth £60 that she had been unable to redeem from the website.

“Whenever I eventually get onto the website you just can’t redeem vouchers. I can’t select which supermarket.

“My shopping costs have gone up by £30-£40 a week with the children home. These vouchers are needed . . . it’s making life difficult.

“I’ve been going without meals myself – I just have one a day now.

 

Teachers donate their own food

Morris’s eldest child is a pupil at Elsley primary school. Its head, Raphael Moss, said the parents of more than half of his 72 pupils on free school meals were still waiting for vouchers ordered three weeks ago (April 2), although newer orders seem to have been delivered.

He’s since directed parents to local foodbanks, with teachers also making donations to emergency food parcels.

Moss said the only way he could access the website was by logging on at 1.30am on Tuesday. Other business managers have also reported visiting the website through the night after spending hours in queues during working hours.

Edenred told Schools Week the Easter upgrades had been “instrumental in ensuring we have accelerated the pace at which eGift cards have been sent to families, that the order experience is improving and average waiting times on the site are falling”.

But it is advising people to only visit outside of “peak hours”, and yesterday it told schools they may now have to wait up to four days for vouchers to be delivered.

Schools are now turning away from the scheme and instead plan to take a chance on claiming back their expenditure on their own schemes.

Schools can use other voucher schemes, but government guidance suggests they can only claim back these costs in certain circumstances. The Treasury is picking up the tab for vouchers ordered under the national scheme.

Hudson said yesterday that schools will be reimbursed for using other schemes where the national system was “inappropriate”, such as where there were no local supermarkets signed up to the national scheme.

But further guidance suggests schools will only be reimbursed where they are unable to cover any extra costs from their existing budget. The DfE confirmed schools are only eligible for reimbursement where additional costs result in having to use historic surpluses or increase the size of a historic deficit.

Heads, many of whom had set up their own arrangements before switching to the national system, say amending this so any other voucher schemes can be claimed back would quickly solve Edenred’s capacity demands (as many schools would go elsewhere).

 

‘The thought of a family going through that made me so angry’

Jeremy Hannay, head of Three Bridges primary school in Southall, west London, is reverting to buying £3,500 of vouchers every two weeks direct from a supermarket after Sainsbury’s declined a parent’s vouchers at the checkout.

“The thought of a family going through that made me so angry – we are not going to subject families to that nonsense anymore.”

Jo Wotton, the group catering manager at Aspire Academy Trust, was waiting in the checkout line at her local Morrisons in Bodmin, Cornwall, when she saw the women in front “getting flustered at the till”.

“She had a school voucher code on her phone that wouldn’t scan. The checkout worker said it was about the 20th time that day. The woman was really upset – she was embarrassed.”

Wooton paid for the shopping.

A school food webinar was told of similar incidents this week.

Hudson said an issue with a “particular supermarket” was “resolved” last week and insisted head offices were contacting their branches to “stamp it out”.

“It has been clarified, and it shouldn’t be happening.”

Sainsbury’s said it was not aware of any issues with vouchers not scanning. Morrisons did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Government ignores offers to help

Nick Waldron, the head of Pinner Park primary school, west London, discovered on Sunday that vouchers for 19 families, ordered at the start of the Easter holidays, had been cancelled.

The order has become “live” again, but he is unable to access the website to check whether parents have redeemed them.

“The vast majority of my parents have not been able to use a voucher to buy food. This is a scandal… These are our poorest, most vulnerable children whose parents need this support.”

Waldron is moving to a voucher system run by Wonde, an edtech firm, which had quickly built up its own voucher system before the national scheme was launched.

It currently has more than 4,000 schools signed up and states on social media that vouchers are delivered to parents within 24 hours.

Schools Week also understands the company, which actually has 16,000 schools using its full range of services, had offered help to the government on multiple occasions, including while problems were emerging with Edenred’s inability to cope with demand.

The offers were not taken up.

Wonde did not want to comment when approached by Schools Week.

Siobhan McDonagh

Hannay said: “I can’t believe the level of sheer incompetence – the numbers should have been anticipated. Why not use five or six companies?”

The Department for Education said the contract was awarded under regulations allowing for the urgent provision of services in response to Covid-19.

An Edenred spokesperson said it had been a government supplier for the past five years and “validated through a competitive tendering process by the Crown Commercial Service”.

But Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh says the government should have utilised councils, many of whom had already set up their own arrangements while waiting for the national scheme to launch.

This appears to be a move favoured by the Welsh government, which last week scrapped its own national voucher scheme.

Education minister Kirsty Williams said the way forward for Wales was for councils to decide what worked best for their local communities. “We know local approaches are working well”.

 

Supermarket’s ‘grave concern’ over failures

The system has also angered some supermarket bosses.

Jo Whitfield, the chief executive of Co-op retail, has written to Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, and Edenred to express her “grave concern” about the national scheme.

A spokesperson said the Co-op was excluded despite “repeated requests to be a part of it, and despite us offering our help in developing a national scheme”.

The supermarket had already launched its own £20 voucher scheme for the 6,500 Co-op Academies pupils, and felt it could provide further advice on getting any scheme right.

The spokesperson said Co-op was the “most local and convenient retailer for many families”. It continued to seek “urgent reassurance from the secretary of state that he would find an immediate solution to allow the Co-op to participate”. Williamson is yet to respond.

Schools have questioned why other budget supermarkets, such as Aldi and Lidl, were excluded (although Aldi has since joined).

The six supermarkets in the scheme include Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.

A letter sent by Edenred in early April, seen by Schools Week, said the six were those with “existing eGift card product which was already available and in circulation with Edenred”.

A spokesperson for the firm said it had not excluded any supermarkets from the scheme, and had been working tirelessly to get others on board. This rests on ensuring supermarkets have the technology and processes for families to redeem codes, they added.

In the letter seen by Schools Week, Lidl and Iceland were said to be “progressing operational discussions”.

 

But is it too late?

Neither the DfE nor Edenred would provide figures on how many voucher submissions had been received and how many have been issued.

An update from the two parties on Tuesday said £15 million worth of voucher codes had been redeemed. More than a quarter of that (£4 million) was redeemed on Monday and Tuesday.

At £15 a weekly voucher, this suggests that one million vouchers have been issued.

Edenred said more than 11,000 schools have placed orders for codes – 46 per cent of England’s schools. There are 1.3 million pupils on free school meals overall, meaning those 11,000 schools have roughly 600,000 free school meal pupils.

The scheme has been running three weeks, so up to 1.8 million vouchers would have needed to have been issued. As many as 800,000 pupils are waiting on at least one weekly voucher (nearly 44 per cent).

And that’s not including any potential issues parents have with accessing those vouchers on the website.

There are also questions over Edenred’s data. For instance, in a letter earlier this month the company it had 16,000 schools “successfully registered for the scheme” and was looking to “onboard” others.

 

‘We are turning it around’

Vicky Ford

Speaking at the virtual education select committee hearing on Tuesday, Vicky Ford, the children’s minister, said the company was “turning it around. Getting food to those who would have expected is an absolute priority.”

Williamson also told Schools Week the “initial technical issues” had been “rapidly addressed”, highlighting the amount of work that “went in to developing a scheme of this magnitude to provide school meal vouchers in such a short period of time”.

He said Edenred continued to work “day and night” to process orders and develop capability.

“I’d like to thank schools for their continued patience while we implement this new scheme, and their continued determination in supporting the families who need it most.”

A DfE spokesperson said that more than £20 million worth of vouchers have been converted into supermarket gift cards as Schools Week went to press.

 

How it works

Schools can vouchers individually online, with a code sent via email to each family, which has to be redeemed from the website

Or they can arrange a bulk order of multiple codes, which schools can send on to a family or create an eGift card for a preferred supermarket which can be redeemed online by parents.



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32 Comments

  1. Fran Overbury

    We have fallen through the cracks in this one. We should be eligible for the meal vouchers but because we are on tax credits not universal credit we are not eligible. My husband and I are currently earning nothing due to the restrictions.

    • same here! I am really struggling. Usually my daughter gets free meals as in year 1 but now due to tax credits I am not entitled. My tax credits were reduced this year to 27 pounds and I have bills etc….its really hard and im sacrificing my meals for my daughter and I am a good shopper and planner!!!! its not fare!

  2. Catherine O'Hanlon

    Another issue with this scheme is that the vouchers cannot be used online. This may result in single parents having to take their children into supermarkets, trying to shop while social distancing with small children. It hasn’t been very well thought out.

    • Jenny Alburey

      We have also found that having finally got the vouchers, due to the tenacity and hard work of our head teacher, that Asda won’t accept them online. I know another parent at the school with the same issue. We are both meant to be medically isolating and are forced out to be able to use them, or have to accept they’re worthless and provide no useable help.

  3. I have been waiting for vouchers for what is now the 4th week for my 2 children at high school. The school have been amazing trying to sort this out and spending hours in the que. it’s a failure. Maybe the government needs to buy the cards already stored with the money in from the retailers and send to the family’s.

  4. Kym Renshall

    I have four children in three different schools. Last week I received vouchers for two of my children and after numerous attempts and lots of waiting and technical difficulties I got £30 worth of supermarket vouchers.
    I am owed £30 from last week for my other two children. Today I have spent 3 hours on the edenred website trying to redeem my code and get supermarket vouchers. After waiting and experiencing technical difficulties for the past 3 hours I have not been able to get my supermarket vouchers.
    I am homeschooling 4 children, have a toddler and work shifts as a keyworker. I do not need the added stress of trying to access edenred free school meal vouchers!

  5. Last week I had 2 codes only needed a few bits so tried to redeem one for Morrisons. It said I had to redeem them in multiples of £10 so had to use both then sent me 2 £15 vouchers. This week I tried using 2 I got a few days after those (they are behind so the first 2 were for previous weeks) but it won’t accept either code and there is no way to contact them… Tells me to contact school… I have 2 kids at different schools and no idea which school issued which

  6. Kirsty Mullen

    Iv had 2 vouchers so far all was fine until today when I tried to put my code in told its wrong iv been trying since 9:05 this morning.no help to try fix this from anywhere not on when I need to get food for my son.

  7. Alan Glover

    It’s usless it tells me I have £60 then 0 I click on Asda and all I get is info ‘re a gift voucher . We can get by but I feel really sorry for the family’s that are genuinely struggling with children at home and not enough food in the house. The department for Education is letting these children down once again.Is it not about time somebody in government did the job they are payed for. I doubt that any of their children are going without .

  8. Paul Hylton

    Having finally accessed the government website, gone through the necessary hoops and hurdles I finally get told that I can have £30 in vouchers, which I redeem through Asda @ 2x£15 Evoucher codes. However upon selecting my items needed I proceed to checkout, enter my voucher codes just to be told that the 2 I had just received are invalid but the previous 2 E voucher codes are also invalid! I have 2 children that need feeding and I can’t afford to get a sitter to watch them whilst I go to the shop, nor can I afford to take them with me, just to have them wait outside!
    This is turning into a complete headache for not just myself but for all parents on the free school meals voucher scheme.

    I’m losing sleep and hair wondering what to do next!!

  9. Mum in distress

    People who are getting e-vouchers are lucky. Trust me the food parcels that schools are handing out are rubbish containing stale food. Please government I request that make mandatory for schools to provide e voucher to parents who want to have them instead of food parcels. I don’t know how to raise this issue as it’s effecting lots of parents in my child school. Most parents doesn’t know how to communicate in English so they are not able to address this issue.

  10. Good Evening, I too have been waiting nearly 3 weeks for the vouchers to come through the school says to just wait that there is a massive backlog I only eat Dinner, sometimes only the kids leftovers to make sure my two girls have 3 meals a day.
    It’s very stressful and I cant explain how much stress it is not to have enough basic essentials at home to make even toast or a cup of tea.
    I will still kee waiting aa there is nothing else I can do, it’s very hard but i know I’m not the only one in this hard situation.
    Keep trying your best for your kids guys, this crazy situation must come to an end one day.
    Stay safe, try and keep your sanity, and remain strong for your Children.

  11. Gemma Greaves

    Our school wont even provide them, instead we have to go pick up a pack lunch every day with sandwich fruit and biscuit with 4 children everyday. I’ve given up going it.

  12. Nadia khan

    I recieved my vouchers today, £60 for 2 children over 3 weeks. When i downloaded them and went to the supermarket Marks and Spencer’s would only accept 1 of them. I realised the e-vouchers had the same barcode and code on all 4 of them. I was soo embarrassed and felt very degraded standing there for 20 minutes. Its disgraceful and I’m struggling for food as I’m a single parent to 5 kids. I’v had to ask for help from food bank. This whole situation has triggered my depression.

  13. Joanne Thornton

    Like thousand of parents out there, my son and I have had to go without. I received a code and on checkout it crashed, i tried to re-enter the code and
    said it was invalid. I contacted edenred via parentsandcarers email and keep getting the same automated email, deleted browser history, re-enter the code and contact the school. I’ve followed their instructions and responded to their emails 6 times. The school cannot get any response from Edenred whatsoever. There is no way of contacting them or even getting a human response from their “recommended, quick and apparently most efficient way” email. Makes me wander if they’re keeping the profits for themselves because it’s not going to where it should be going, complete joke

  14. Paul brown

    I’ve been waiting 2 weeks now for my sons £75 vouchers we r both disabled I’m a single dad really finding it hard at this time the vouchers would help us to get better meLs as we r really struggling the school just keeps telling me to email them which I’ve done over 10 times no reply think it’s a joke that family’s in need r left to deal with everything r selfs one big joke

  15. Mrs Sarah Johns

    I finally received my £30 worth of vouchers (we have 2 children) we went and redeemed them and got an e-gift card for Tesco. We then logged in, did our order and then at the checkout found out that Tesco DO NOT ACCEPT the vouchers ONLINE!!! I am under the extremely vulnerable category for Coronavirus as I have little immune system due to a medication I have and so I am not allowed to leave my house. So I have £30 of useless vouchers and no Tesco grocery shop!!! It’s bad.

  16. Angela Halliday

    Its time the Government sorted this out !!
    I too have trouble redeeming the voucher codes, I’m a Special Guardian to my two grandchildren. and also a single parent to them and for three weeks now I have not received the e-voucher.
    I have emailed Endenred ….no response, contacted the school who are overwhelmed with complaints about the scheme. I really feel for people who are struggling to feed, home school and keep theirs and their children’s sanity.

  17. I have had 4 vouchers issued and redeemed but the first 2 didnt work off my phone with a scan and didnt work with the code being manualley put in, the other 2 ive redeemed as asda for online but by the sound of it they wont work. I have tried every method to contact Edenred which seems impossible, my daufghters school has tried to contact them to no avail.

    Its just desgusting that even the redeemed vouchers dont work, and some familys are really suffering. These people are playing with the health of children and the government are doing nothing about it.

  18. We have been waiting for our child’s vouchers for several weeks. We have only received one in the first week and nothing since. I am a student nurse with a very low income and we rely on these vouchers for the extra costs incurred of having children at home, all day everyday. I think it’s even worse that we are effectively ignored by the school when we politely inquire about where the vouchers are. I even said I felt embarrassed to keep asking and that it was humiliating. One week later……..no response to that email 🙁

  19. Hakim Hassan

    I have not received any vouchers for my kid for support and I have contacted the school and they haven’t been help at all . I need to get vouchers for my kid plz help as I can’t afford it . Please will me back .

  20. Shahin Chopani

    I received a voucher for my newphew and I wanted to redeem it for his parent but I enter wrong email what should I do .

    Please advice and I don’t know what to do .

    Thanks

  21. Katarzyna

    I got an April voucher worth £ 60 and May for £ 60 eGift card code for Morrisons, the egift card came without a barcode, I try to contact you for a month and I haven’t received a rare answer so far, we can’t make purchases with an eGift card without a barcode, unless that there is a joke about this help

  22. Jennifer Baker

    I have no car, can’t get out and it says the vouchers can be used online, getting slots has been an utter nightmare, im going without food. I cannot get to a store, I have been in hospital and have no support and in crisis.

  23. Tina Wear

    My niece has received a voucher but cannot redeem it as nonne of the supermarkets in the scheme are in her area . It would cost a small fortune on the buses to go to her nearest town which is a 45 min walk away. She shops at Iceland and they’re not in the scheme

  24. Not sure if you can help but my son’s school is not even giving vouchers, they keep trying to make me collect but when I can’t thry sending a carrier bag of food that noone would every two weeks, I’ve asked about vouchers and they sent me a food bank card, I’m really confused about this? Anyone have advice?

  25. Amy broad

    I have 2 children and have also not been getting any vouchers.
    Me and my partner don’t work due to me being disabled so he is my carer.
    This can’t go on it’s getting stupid now

  26. Got 1 kid not received anything school don’t even get bk to me tryd getting InTouch with Leicester city council they rubbish have to start nicking from the shops

  27. My 15 year old growing son should be getting these vouchers now not had a thing what a load of rubbish I get from some of the people I have spoke to iv been trying to find out about who to really talk to since April now its beyond a joke when the child school/college have been paid from free school department to fund the students I’m a single mum from leeds n just like other mums/dads find it hard when don’t get no help from no one

  28. Al rodwell

    My wife is a stage4 cancer patient after redeeming £160 vouchers I haven’t recieved them email and nothing back we have 4 children and struggle to feed our children yet not left house either it’s been a crazy time since lockdown first happened however these vouchers we are still awaiting and nothing, no joys from the company however my children haven’t starved but nutritional matters have been somewhat questionable my wife’s pip for her needs has gone into food costs which of course had ment my wife has gone without her vitamins but at choice the children 5/6 and 16 need more so we had to make decisions we have made.

    However this system has been a huge let down to us since system started and no joys what so ever after reported school and company it self.

    However my wife stated neglect would be a issue if couldn’t use money given to her for support in the home and much needed treatment and ontop we can’t have neglect through starving children.

    We can’t be the only family finding themselves in the same situation.