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

“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.