Extending free school meal vouchers into summer welcomed in West Sussex

The Government decision to extend free school meal vouchers into the summer holidays has been welcomed in West Sussex.

Monday, 22nd June 2020, 10:53 am
Pupils who receive free school meals have been receiving vouchers instead during the lockdown (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images) SUS-200622-093810001

The issue was put in the national spotlight after a campaign spearheaded by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.

Families whose children qualify for free school meals have received either vouchers to spend in supermarkets or parcels during lockdown.

While the scheme is continuing throughout the summer in Scotland and Wales it was due to stop at the end of the summer term in England.

Due to public pressure the government has backtracked and extended it throughout the summer holidays.

Michael Jones, leader of the Labour group at West Sussex County Council, was one of those who had called for an extension.

He called the announcement ‘extremely encouraging’.

However he has highlighted problems with the administration of the system as the process of getting vouchers out to the families who need them has proved cumbersome for many schools.

Cllr Jones has called on the county council to be proactive in ensuring the system is working properly in West Sussex.

He said: “It does underline that if the scheme is continuing the Government must get the system working for everyone who is eligible, properly and that the county council still has a role in ensuring this happens here in West Sussex and not just pass the buck.”

The Department for Education has developed a centrally funded national voucher scheme for schools to provide food support to children eligible for free meals who are not in school.

Schools received information from DfE supplier Edenred about how to access and administer the voucher scheme.

These are ordered for individual families by the schools, but problems have cropped up with the system.

Labour surveyed a number of schools in West Sussex and many reported having serious issues.

Some school staff had to work up to midnight or get up at 5.30 in the morning to get orders for vouchers accepted as the online system is just too slow during normal working hours.

Meanwhile some orders went undelivered while other families saw delays in getting their vouchers.

Cllr Jones said there had been ‘serious shortcomings’ with the system and a ‘litany of failures’.

Lavinia O’Connor, a Labour councillor in Adur, called on the government to ‘get a grip’ and felt it was ‘callous and outrageous that families with children are being treated this way’.

She added: “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.”

A West Sussex County Council spokesman said: “We have done everything we can, working closely with our schools, to make sure that where vouchers through the national scheme have not been received, alternative arrangements have been made for individual families.

“We offered advice to those schools that had problems in getting government-issued vouchers and some of them then purchased vouchers directly for parents until the government-issued voucher scheme was performing as intended.

“We are pleased that the Government has now decided to extend the free school meals voucher scheme across the summer holidays.

“Since the start of the outbreak and more recently, we have gone beyond our statutory duties by providing all returning Year 6, key worker pupils and those classed as vulnerable attending school, with a free meal, where possible.

“In addition to the support we offer through schools, we continue to work closely with district and borough councils, local businesses and voluntary organisations through our community hubs, to deliver food and supplies to vulnerable families across the county.”

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