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Children “going hungry” due to free school meals voucher confusion and delays

PUBLISHED: 17:39 09 April 2020 | UPDATED: 17:48 09 April 2020

A voucher scheme for thousands of Norfolk children eligible for free school means to get money for food from supermarkets over Easter has been hit by delays. Picture: Getty

A voucher scheme for thousands of Norfolk children eligible for free school means to get money for food from supermarkets over Easter has been hit by delays. Picture: Getty

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A government decision to continue free school meals over Easter has led to confusion with schools struggling with delays that have left some children “going hungry”.

Families eligable for free school meals have been left waiting for vouchers to use for food from supermarkets. Picture GettyFamilies eligable for free school meals have been left waiting for vouchers to use for food from supermarkets. Picture Getty

Headteachers said guidance had been confusing, contradictory or incorrect, while some qualifying families are still waiting for vouchers half way through the holiday period.

The Department for Education (DfE) has extended financial support to children eligible for free school meals to cover the Easter break.

Originally the scheme, which allows families to claim shopping vouchers of £15 a week per child, only covered term-time meals.

Headteachers’ association, Educate Norfolk, said schools had encountered “significant issues” with registering children on the government’s Edenred free school meals voucher system.

In a statement it said: “Once being registered, families are waiting many days to receive the email they need to claim their voucher. This means that in some cases, children are going hungry. In these circumstances, decisions about whether to re-submit applications have caused headteachers anxiety.”

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Families without access to email rely on paper vouchers but the system involves schools registering details, before receiving a code to be used on a separate website for vouchers to be posted or delivered.

Ross Li-Rocchi, head of school at Hobart High School. Picture: Diane SpoonerRoss Li-Rocchi, head of school at Hobart High School. Picture: Diane Spooner

Diane Mapplebeck, headteacher at Hunstanton Primary School, said: “The system is struggling to cope with the sheer number of head teachers trying to get vouchers.

“First we were told it would be 24 hours, then 72 hours, but I have only just got our first vouchers for parents through some eight days later.

“Free school meals are for families who are very much in need and this has caused a lot of stress at a difficult time.”

Free school meal evouchers and gift cards can be used by families over Easter at a range of supermarkets. Picture: Sonya Duncan/PA ImagesFree school meal evouchers and gift cards can be used by families over Easter at a range of supermarkets. Picture: Sonya Duncan/PA Images

Adam Mason, headteacher at Fakenham Junior School, which has 52 free school meals pupils, said: “There are 16,000 schools nationally and it has meant we were all going to a system that simply could not cope. Parents are still waiting for vouchers after eight days.”

Ross Li-Rocchi, head of school at Hobart High School, said: “Issuing of e-vouchers to families eligible for free school meals using the government scheme has been challenging, cumbersome, and most significantly, featured long delays in processing the orders.

“I attempted the uploading of information on March 2. It is only today (March 9) that the vouchers have been available to families.

“In my opinion this is far too long a time period, particularly when the intention to use such a scheme was announced over two weeks ago.

“This has not been the easiest situation to manage because the voucher provider has not been contactable since March 2, and this has meant I have been unable to provide meaningful updates to families such as the expected length of delay.”

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Many schools had already made their own arrangements for their families. This had included issuing of vouchers purchased by the schools or food parcels or packed lunches from existing suppliers.

Educate Norfolk said: “This leaves headteachers with the difficult decision: do they stick with their own system, which works for their school, or move to a new system about which there are reliability concerns?”

The government has now said it will reimburse schools that have already paid for free school meals for children out of school before the national voucher scheme was introduced.

Schools will also be given funding to support pupils eligible for free school meals who cannot access the scheme because there are no participating supermarkets locally, the DfE said.

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