West Sussex Labour councillors condemn “chaotic” free school meals voucher scheme and question sharp rise in school absence fines to local families in the county

Labour councillors from West Sussex have raised their alarm about the potential problems with the free school meals voucher scheme which has meant that families eligible for them may have lost out due to administrative faults from the supplier and internal problems in accessing them from schools in the county.  They have also challenged the council about the steep rise in fines for absence in county schools, out of line with other authorities in the South East.

In a letter sent today to the Tory Cabinet Member for Education at West Sussex County Council, Nigel Jupp (Con, Southwater and Nuthurst), Labour Group Leader on the county council Councillor Michael Jones (Southgate and Gossops Green) expresses serious concerns about the performance of the free school vouchers system and urges the Cabinet Member to confirm that the council satisfies itself that the arrangements are working satisfactorily across the county.

  • Following the Government decision to close schools other than to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, the Department for Education (DfE) issued guidance to local authorities and schools. This advised that whilst under normal circumstances, schools are not expected to provide free school meals to eligible children who are not attending due to illness or if the school is closed, during the COVID-19 outbreak the Government expect schools to continue to provide support to all eligible children.
  • The DfE has developed a centrally funded national voucher scheme to support schools with the requirement to provide food support to children eligible for free schools meals who are not in school. This funding is additional to existing free school meal budgets. Schools received information from the DfE supplier Edenred regarding how to access and administer the voucher scheme.
  • Parents of children who would usually receive free school meals, but are at home during the lockdown, are meant to be able to use vouchers and e-codes provided by French company Edenred to buy food in shops. These are ordered for individual families by the schools – but problems with the system means delays in getting the vouchers to families.
  • Labour councillors across West Sussex started noticing problems with the system with the system almost immediately – often meaning that either families were not receiving the vouchers and so risked going hungry, or schools and the community had to chip in to fill a gap when the vouchers were not forthcoming. A prominent example happened at Oriel School in Maidenbower, but in a briefing sent to county councillors in May, the county council itself admitted that “There does appear to be issues remaining accessing Edenred vouchers for some schools. Several schools spoken to still haven’t received their introduction email. One school reported their business manager finally getting through on the system at 1 in the morning.”
  • These problems were all occurring at the same time that food bank providers had indicated demand was soaring due to food poverty. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, said it experienced its busiest ever period after lockdown was announced on 23 March, when it issued 50,000 food parcels in the space of a week, almost double its usual volume.  A similar picture emerged from the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan), which said its food banks recorded a 59% increase in demand for emergency food support between February and March – 17 times higher than the same period a year ago.
  • In a follow up survey conducted by Labour councillors in Adur District in West Sussex, to gauge the extent of the problems being experienced by schools and families receiving the vouchers, eleven Adur schools responding to a telephone and e-mail survey from the local Labour Party reported serious problems.
  • Problems identified, included:
  • School staff having to work up to midnight or getting up at 5.30 in the morning to get orders for vouchers accepted – the online system is just too slow in normal working hours
  • orders undelivered
  • delays of up to three days in getting vital vouchers to families
  • staff having to go back to square one of a lengthy process to reorder if a voucher is not received or an email has been entered wrongly.
  • failures when parents try use the voucher in a shop.
  • issues for parents who do not have a printer at home to print-off their vouchers
  • School staff members described the system as “convoluted” and “unkind”. One said it was the “the single most frustrating, sometimes heart-breaking and time-consuming task” they had undertaken as a school secretary.
  • One school secretary told Labour councillors they have had to get up at half past five in the morning at the weekend to log in at home to order vouchers for families, the only time they were able to access the system.
  • While maintained schools run by the county council who are subject to a corporate catering contract with the council have been providing hot meals for all children in the school who are attending, this does not extend to many of the schools in West Sussex, who are not included in that agreement, which constitutes many of them.
  • In his letter to the Cabinet Member, Cllr Jones expressed his concern about the general situation but also his worries that parents in families eligible for free school meal vouchers who may not have been able to access these satisfactorily may have felt obliged to return their children to school despite this not necessarily being either what the family wants or indeed in their health interests due to the continuing COVID-19 crisis. He also expressed his concern about the rising levels of fining in West Sussex, with the most recent figures available for the year 2018/19 being well out of line with other authorities in the South East, which could be an additional factor.
  • In his letter, Cllr Jones told the Cabinet Member: “You will be aware that in some cases last month it was being left to schools to find a solution to ensure its pupils are not going hungry. The briefing you circulated last month has not reassured me that a satisfactory solution is in place for all pupils in the County.  I am therefore seeking confirmation that you are personally satisfied that every West Sussex pupil who are entitled to free school meals and who not in school because of the lockdown situation are in receipt of adequate meal provision, or an alternative in the form of funding or vouchers.”
  • Cllr Jones also called on the Cabinet Member to write to urge the Tory Government to retain the free school meal voucher scheme during this time, due to the extraordinarily difficult circumstances these families are facing through the Covid-19 crisis and to oppose announcement by the Secretary of State that this will be removed beginning with the summer holidays.

Speaking after sending the letter to the Cabinet Member, Labour Group Leader on West Sussex County Council Michael Jones said:

“It’s extremely clear to me that although there was meant to be a system in place that ensured everyone eligible received the vouchers, there have been serious shortcomings.  In fact, there has been a litany of failure.  Rather than shrugging its shoulders, the county council needs to step in and help address these problems and ensure we are looking after many of our families here in West Sussex.  The additional concern over families being fined for absences also needs a clear message from the council and reassurance that people are not going to be penalised in this time of crisis for putting their families’ safety first.”

Labour Adur District Councillor Lavinia O’Connor (Southlands), who has been campaigning strongly on this issue which has affected many of the families in her ward and more widely in the Adur District, agreed with Councillor Jones, adding:

“Without the extreme extra effort that is being put in by school staff this chaotic system would be an absolute failure and many of our most vulnerable families would be suffering real hunger. Some staff are at their wits end as this is such a time-consuming and frustrating exercise.

 “Edenred was contracted by the government to distribute food vouchers valued at up to £234m during the Covid-19 lockdown. But the project has been dogged by problems nationally from delays in getting vouchers to families to vouchers not being accepted by supermarkets. 

 “It’s callous and outrageous that families with children are being treated this way. Who knows how many parents have had to join the increasing numbers going to foodbanks so their children can eat.  The government needs to get a grip.”

 

Notes to editors:.

Edenred have been contracted to work with the Department for Education to deliver supermarket vouchers to those families, where schools are not able to make food available directly. The support should take the form of an e-code to be redeemed online or the school will print off the voucher or card, and post it to the family home or arrange a collection.

School secretaries taking part in the survey conducted by Cllr O’Connor did so on the understanding that their comments would be anonymised.

The Guardian newspaper reported problems with delivery by Edenred earlier this month:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/07/government-gave-national-pupils-food-voucher-contract-to-small-company

Information about the recent rise in food bank use can be found in the link to the following Guardian article:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/01/uk-food-banks-face-record-demand-in-coronavirus-crisis

From 1 April 2018, free school meals in all West Sussex maintained and free schools and academies are available to pupils in receipt of, or whose parents are in receipt of, one or more of the following benefits:

Universal Credit (provided you have an annual net earned income of no more than £7,400, as assessed by earnings from up to three of your most recent assessment periods)

Income Support

Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance

Income-related Employment and Support Allowance

Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999

The guaranteed element of state Pension Credit

Child Tax Credit (provided you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more £16,190)

Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for four weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit.

https://www.westsussex.gov.uk/education-children-and-families/schools-and-colleges/free-school-meals/

 

The full text from the letter from Cllr Jones is reproduced below:

Mr Nigel Jupp,

Cabinet Member for Education, West Sussex County Council

22 May 2020

BY EMAIL

Dear Nigel,

Concern over fining for school absences and over problems with free school meal voucher scheme for those families eligible

I am writing to you about a couple of matters to which I would appreciate your comments on.

The first relates to a recent news report about the number of parents fined by the County Council relating to unauthorised pupil absences within the 2018/19 academic year.

Here is a link to the news report for ease of reference – https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/18477758.hundreds-sussex-parents-prosecuted-absence-fines/

The report states that 4,981 fines were issued placing the County in the top 15 most prolific issuers of fines despite relative low population levels by comparison.  Furthermore it suggests that 556 parents went on to be prosecuted because the fine had not been paid within 28 days.  Whilst I appreciate the link between attainment and unauthorised absence, I would hope that some work with the parents to ascertain whether there are mitigating circumstances would be taking place.

I would appreciate it if you could let me have your comments on the news report and confirm that under the current circumstances no parent will be fined for unauthorised absence if their child is eligible to return to school following closure due to Covid 19.

I would also be grateful if you could let me have an update on the situation regarding the provision of free school meals now that some pupils have returned to school and others remain at home.  I appreciate this must be making it more difficult for schools but would not want to think that parents are taking the decision to return their children to school to ensure they can be assured of a school meal, given that there have been issues with the Government voucher scheme.

You will be aware that in some cases last month it was being left to schools to find a solution to ensure its pupils are not going hungry.  The briefing you circulated last month has not reassured me that a satisfactory solution is in place for all pupils in the County.  I am therefore seeking confirmation that you are personally satisfied that every West Sussex pupil who are entitled to free school meals and who not in school because of the lockdown situation are in receipt of adequate meal provision, or an alternative in the form of funding or vouchers.

You may also be aware that the Government is appearing to indicate that it will be withdrawing the voucher scheme at the end of the summer term.  This coincided with news that food poverty and food bank usage in the country has increased significantly.

I hope given the proven need for support for some of our county’s families, you share my concern about this withdrawal.  I ask if you would be prepared to write to the Secretary of State for Education to share such concerns and to urge the Government to retain the free school meal voucher scheme during this time, due to the extraordinarily difficult circumstances these families are facing through the Covid-19 crisis.

Finally, I wish to raise the letter dated 22 May 2020 relating to schools re-opening sent to you by myself and over forty other Labour councillors from across West Sussex.  Having checked my records, I cannot find any direct reply being received, despite your promise at Cabinet you were going to do so, and I would now be grateful for the courtesy of a response.

I look forward to hearing from you, on all these important education related issues.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Michael Jones

Southgate and Gossops Green

West Sussex Labour Group Leader

 

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