FSM voucher debacle: Scramble to fix system laid bare by NAO report

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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"Too many parents had to wait too long to get the support they needed” as the government’s system of Covid-19 free school meal vouchers “buckled under the pressure”.

At the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in April, the government’s chosen contractor for FSM vouchers, Edenred, was overwhelmed by calls to its helpline and emails from schools and parents struggling to get vouchers.

When the scheme launched, it was taking Edenred almost five days to process orders for the vouchers. Calls to its helpline from schools and parents peaked at almost 4,000 a week in mid-April. At the end of April there was a peak of almost 9,000 emails a week.

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) into the programme’s delivery, published this week, says that the situation did improve between late April and July, but school leaders this week reminded the DfE of just how much stress the problems caused at the time.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: “It is difficult to work out why this level of demand was not anticipated by the DfE or Edenred as the number of children claiming FSM is hardly a secret.”

The voucher scheme was launched after the country went into national lockdown in March and schools closed to the majority of pupils. It offered vouchers worth £15 a week, redeemable in participating supermarkets, to the 1.44 million children eligible for FSM in England.

Schools were required to register for the scheme and then order e-codes via the Edenred website. The NAO report says that while the system did improve over time, Edenred was unable to offer “prompt support” in the early days of the programme.

School staff reported having to log-on to the website late at night in order to avoid long waits. Edenred was forced to act in April to improve its IT systems in order to handle the volume of inquiries.

The report states: “Schools reported that it was difficult and time-consuming to register for the scheme in the first instance. Schools told us that it was difficult to log onto Edenred’s website to order e-codes and that staff had to do this late at night to avoid long waiting times. Schools and parents said they could not get prompt support from Edenred, either by telephone or email.”

However, the NAO recognises that things improved as capacity and IT systems were improved: “The time it took Edenred to process orders dropped from an average of nearly five days in April 2020 to within hours in July 2020.

“Average waiting times for schools and parents to access Edenred's website fell from over 42 minutes for schools and over 12 minutes for parents in late April, to virtually no wait at all by July 2020.”

Further problems were caused by a lack of communication when the government announced it was extending the voucher programme to cover the Easter school holidays without informing Edenred.

The NAO states: “Pressure on the system continued when, on April 4, the government announced that it was extending the scheme to cover the school Easter holiday. Edenred told us it was not informed in advance of this announcement, and that it had intended to use the holiday period to process outstanding orders and make adjustments to its systems to improve performance.”

Elsewhere, delays were also caused by schools supplying incorrect emails for families. Notably, on the weekend of May 2 and 3, Edenred found that around 40,000 emails had bounced. In total, more than 134,000 e-codes were undelivered because of incorrect email addresses, affecting more than 36,600 parents.

The scheme also suffered in its early days because of a lack of participating supermarkets. Six were signed up from its launch – supermarkets with which Edenred had existing commercial relationships. This number rose to 10 by the end of June.

The report adds: “The average value of vouchers that families requested per week was highest for Asda, followed by Tesco and Aldi. Some supermarket chains, including Lidl, as well as local convenience stores, the Co-operative Group and other co-operative societies, did not take part in the scheme.”

The NAO recognises that the DfE managed to get the programme up and running in just 18 days. It said that the DfE “recognised that the choice of supplier, speed of implementation and uncertainty about likely take-up of the scheme created risks”. However, the DfE also had “limited evidence of Edenred’s capacity to deliver the scheme to this scale and the required pace”.

Edenred was awarded the contract because the DfE wanted to get the system up and running quickly and the company was the only appropriate provider that was already approved under the Crown Commercial Service framework.

Ultimately, more than 90 per cent of state schools registered to use the scheme at some point between its launch and August, although the DfE does not know exactly how many children benefited.

Edenred issued 10.1 million vouchers in total, which varied in value because they could cover more than one child in the same family or more than one week. Based on the number of email addresses it used, it estimates that as many as 900,000 families benefited.

In October, the DfE forecast that the final cost of scheme would be no more than £384 million.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: "The DfE got the voucher scheme up and running quickly. Problems at the start of the scheme led to a frustrating experience for many schools and families, but the DfE and Edenred worked hard to get on top of these issues. Performance steadily improved as the scheme progressed."

Commenting on the report, Meg Hillier MP, chair of the House of Commons’ Committee of Public Accounts, said: “The DfE chose an adapted off-the-shelf system to save time. But when it launched, families typically had to wait five days to get the vouchers they needed to buy food.

“Edenred’s systems buckled under the pressure and schools and families found it much too difficult to get in touch when things went wrong. The DfE and Edenred eventually managed to turn things around – but too many parents had to wait too long to get the support they needed.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), added: “The delivery of FSM vouchers via Edenred was a particularly stressful and difficult point in the Covid crisis for schools. We received hundreds of emails and phone calls from our members saying that the online system for delivering vouchers simply wasn’t working – it was overwhelmed.

“School leaders, and school business leaders in particular, spent hours and hours trying to get the website to work, often staying up until the early hours of the morning to access the system when there was less traffic. This obviously created huge amounts of stress and frustration.

“Although the intentions behind the scheme were good, it is clear that the government’s chosen delivery system was inadequate.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, concurred: “While we appreciate the challenge of setting up a national 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.

“The system was completely unable to deal with demand and schools experienced significant difficulties in accessing the scheme to obtain vouchers for struggling families who desperately needed this support.

“It is difficult to work out why this level of demand was not anticipated by the DfE or Edenred as the number of children claiming FSM is hardly a secret. Even in the constrained timeframe involved it should have been possible to do better than the chaos which ensued.”

Finally, the report cannot confirm if Edenred has made a profit from running the scheme. Its contract includes provision for DfE to access information about Edenred's income and costs relating to the scheme but, the NAO says that the DfE has not so far made use of this arrangement.

The DfE paid Edenred the face value of vouchers issued to families and there was no management fee or payments for costs for administering the scheme. Nor were there financial incentives or penalties linked to performance. However, Edenred generated revenue from the scheme by buying vouchers from supermarket chains at a discount on their face value.

A spokesperson for Edenred told SecEd: "The report is fair in its reflection of the challenges faced in the first four weeks and we welcome the recognition of the hard work and investment we put into solving those problems, resulting in improvements to a scheme which delivered for parents and schools in the final four months of the programme, when it saw the greatest demand.”


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