Failings of free school meals voucher scheme investigated

An investigation from the National Audit Office (NAO) has found that problems with the free school meal vouchers scheme led to delays in parents receiving vouchers and inconvenience for schools trying to order them.

The Department for Education (DfE) launched the voucher scheme at the end of March 2020, having closed schools to all but a minority of pupils but instructed them to continue providing free school meals to eligible pupils. The vouchers were worth £15 per week for each eligible child. Schools ordered ‘eCodes’ online to be sent via email to families, who could then convert them into vouchers. The DfE awarded the contract to run the scheme to Edenred. The NAO investigation was prompted by reports in April of schools and parents experiencing problems in using the scheme, including difficulties in accessing the Edenred website.

Schools were not obliged to use the voucher scheme, but the NAO found that overall 94 per cent of state schools in England registered for it.  However the DfE does not know precisely how many eligible children were supported by it, as schools were not required to enter pupil details when ordering vouchers to avoid ‘Edenred having to handle a large volume of sensitive personal data’. The investigation found that, especially early in the scheme, schools experienced difficulties logging in to Edenred’s website, with staff having to do so late at night to avoid long waiting times. Families also experienced similar difficulties, with long waiting times to access the website to convert eCodes for vouchers into the vouchers themselves. The NAO notes that this is likely to have been especially costly for people using pay-as-you-go mobile phones. One striking finding in the NAO’s report is that when the government announced on 4 April that the voucher scheme would be extended to cover the Easter holiday period, it did not inform Edenred in advance of the announcement. This placed further strains on Edenred’s systems.

However, the NAO did find that the performance of the scheme improved over time, with the time it took Edenred to process orders for eCodes dropping from an average of 4.93 days in April 2020 to 0.16 days in July 2020. It also found both Edenred and the DfE took action to improve the performance of the scheme. For example, Edenred identified a tranche of emails containing voucher codes which had not been delivered because the email addresses provided by schools were incorrect. It then contacted the relevant schools to advise how replacement vouchers could be ordered. At the peak of the problems the DfE held daily calls with Edenred to monitor progress in addressing issues.

Responding to the NAO’s investigation Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘While we appreciate the challenge of setting up a national free school meals voucher scheme in difficult circumstances, the launch of the Edenred system went way beyond a few teething problems, and felt to schools more like a meltdown’. He added: ‘Even in the constrained timeframe involved it should have been possible to do better than the chaos which ensued’.

Full NAO report:

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March 29, 2021 (PDF 4.55 MB)

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