By Councillor Frances Mason
Trying to understand the problems parents were disclosing around the Free School Meals Supermarket Voucher system, Councillor Mark Ingall, requested that I make contact with schools in Harlow to establish what the current situation is. To date, although the sample relates to 15 schools in Harlow, I have received responses from primary and secondary schools across 10 wards in Harlow.
Having made direct contact with most of the schools I followed this up with a 2-minute survey to collect data which had a mixture of results.
On a positive note 80% of the sample (15 schools) advised they had been successful in obtaining Supermarket Vouchers. Sadly, 20% of schools were aware of children going hungry during the Covid-19 crisis. One Head Teacher advised ‘This has affected 94 families who have not received at least one voucher, many have not received any. To date they should have received 7 wks vouchers at £15 per child’.
The majority of the schools who used Edenred (71.43%), a company contracted to supply the vouchers, reported problems including difficulty getting through, high premium call costs. On a positive note 14.29% used Wearewonde successful and 14.29% using another method. From this data you can clearly see where an Academy Trust had implemented the same system to all its schools which were successful, unfortunately another group of Academies who chose the alternative company have struggled with its implementation.
What is clear is that a number of schools initially purchased 2 weeks of vouchers directly to allow for the new system to bed in which then took them up to 14 days to obtain the remaining vouchers. 40% of schools reported it took them between 15-28 days to obtain the vouchers. Vouchers were also issued for the Foodbank to assist due to delays.
Qualitative responses included:
‘The system was fairly complex and was a huge amount of workload for school admin’
‘The Edenred Scheme has taken hours and days of work each week to administer. It has caused a great deal of stress because staff care about pupils getting the vouchers and sometimes, they come at the last moment’
‘Edenred was very difficult but has now got faster’
‘We have been providing free school lunches for parents to collect or deliver’
‘The system has been unreliable and poorly administered’
‘A minority of parents had difficulty accessing the vouchers online but with support from the school were successful’
On reflection, had this survey been conducted at the beginning of this Covid-19 crisis, as well at this point, we may have seen improvements which are not evident 8 wks after the implementation of the Free School Meals supermarket voucher system. However, it does show a ‘straw poll’ in where we are today.
On a positive note, we have been in discussion with Robert Halfon MP who has taken this matter up at ministerial level. However, these results come from a survey completed today on the 8th week of lock down, knowing that schools will be in this situation for many more weeks to come. We are seeking urgent solutions to ensure those most affected by food poverty in Harlow do not go another week without this support.
On seeing the results of the survey Councillor Mark Ingall, leader of Harlow a Council said “schools have reacted to the Covid crisis magnificently, providing online teaching, staying open for the children of key workers and distributing food vouchers, even food parcels when the voucher scheme has failed. There seems to be a real problem with the vouchers being distributed by Edenred, compounded by information I have received that the only way to contact the company is through a prohibitively expensive premium rate phone line. I shall be asking Robert Halfon to join with me in asking the Government what immediate action they will take to stop Harlow children from going hungry”
Councillor for Toddbrook Ward
With contribution from Councillor Chris Vince