Writing to the Secretary of State for Education, Imran has demanded that the Government urgently replace the free school meal voucher system put in place during the Coronavirus crisis, after an angry backlash from teachers who declare that it has failed in its purpose and is leaving children hungry as a result.
According to Bradford Council, around 30% of schools across the country are facing severe challenges in accessing the Government’s Free School Meal (FSM) voucher system that is designed to replace the free meal that they normally receive in school whilst schools remain closed, with devastating consequences for the 27,000 children across Bradford who are entitled to or receiving free school meals. However, speaking to individual headteachers, Mr Hussain has claimed that the figure in Bradford could be much higher than 30%, with some schools failing to receive any vouchers at all for their pupils.
Under the current system, schools apply for food vouchers for their FSM eligible pupils from Government contracted company, Edenred, with these vouchers then distributed to parents for use in major supermarkets and other food retailers. However, many schools have faced serious difficulties in accessing the online system used to apply for vouchers, with the system crashing and Edenred failing to respond to queries from headteachers, leading to delays in their distribution and forcing some teachers to pay for food out of their own pockets.
In response to Imran’s call for evidence from schools across Bradford East, headteachers have highlighted a range of challenges facing them in using the Edenred system. These include:
- Teachers waiting two hours or more each day to log onto the Edenred system to administer FSM vouchers;
- Families waiting hours to access Edenred’s helpline, which is charged at a standard rate;
- Parents unable to access or print the vouchers that they receive from the school;
Vouchers failing to scan at supermarket checkouts, leaving families unable to pay and having to leave their shopping;
- Schools where no pupils have received any vouchers;
- Incorrect information for schools stored by Edenred, despite being told of this by the schools; and
- Schools delivering food parcels and hardship funding to vulnerable pupils as vouchers have not arrived.
Highlighting the high rate of child poverty across Bradford, with around half of children growing up in poverty in Bradford East, and the impact that free school meals have in tackling both the symptoms and causes of child poverty, Imran has written to the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson MP. In this letter, he has demanded that the Education Secretary addresses the concerns of teachers, and that he and the Government act to replace the current voucher system with a more reliable alternative model and provider to ensure that no child goes hungry whilst their schools remain closed.
Speaking on the free school meals voucher scheme, Imran said:
“The impact of Coronavirus is exacerbating what is an already stark divide between our poorest and most affluent communities, and families with parents who have been placed on furlough with reduced incomes, but unchanged outgoings are being particularly hard hit by its impact. They face an even greater challenge than normal in putting food on the table during this crisis, and the Government should be taking down barriers for these families, not putting them up.
“A considerable number of teachers have raised serious concerns with me about the scheme designed to provide meals to children eligible for free school meals whilst their schools remain closed, and with schools unable to apply for vouchers, leaving parents and children going without, it is clear that the company contracted by the Government to perform this role have simply been unable to manage the scheme.
“The Government should know exactly how many pupils across the country and in each local authority are eligible for free school meals, and they should, therefore, know the precise demand that will be placed upon their voucher system before it was put in place. Yet it is clear they failed to take this into account and failed to conduct any due diligence to ensure the provider was capable of handling the demand, and now those poorer families across the region are paying the price.
“I, therefore, urge the Government to immediately address this issue as a matter of urgency so that no child goes hungry during this crisis.”