SQUARED MEALS? How each county deals with the burn­ing is­sue of school din­ner debts

Bangor Mail - - WEEKLY PUZZLES -

THE hot topic of school din­ners has fea­tured reg­u­larly in the head­lines – from the story of a mum threat­ened with so­cial ser­vices over a £13 un­paid bill, to that of a pri­mary that told par­ents their chil­dren couldn’t have a Christ­mas meal if they were in ar­rears.

School meal debts are soar­ing across North Wales, with Gwynedd’s be­com­ing the big­gest in Wales as the county is owed £136,821.21.

The debt for one of the county’s schools alone topped £18,000.

Par­ents feel schools should of­fer more flex­i­bil­ity to pre­vent em­bar­rass­ment or shame.

In Septem­ber, our sis­ter pa­per the Daily Post re­ported how a single mum was threat­ened with be­ing re­ported to so­cial ser­vices be­cause she was late pay­ing her child’s £13 din­ner money.

A let­ter sent to the mother by Den­bighshire Coun­cil’s school meal ser­vice said fail­ing to ei­ther set­tle the bill or pro­vide a packed lunch in­stead would be seen as “a child pro­tec­tion con­cern”.

And last month, Den­bighshire had to apol­o­gise for a sec­ond time af­ter a school “mis­tak­enly” sent out let­ters telling par­ents their chil­dren wouldn’t get a Christ­mas meal if their din­ner money was in ar­rears – even if they had the £2.20 to pay for it.

Coun­cils have dif­fer­ent poli­cies on how long a child will be al­lowed to ac­crue debts be­fore lunch is with­held, what al­ter­na­tive is of­fered and how debts are re­cov­ered. In many cases, ac­tion is up to in­di­vid­ual schools, with debts larger than a cer­tain size trans­ferred to their local au­thor­ity to re­cover.

Rowan Davies, head of pol­icy and cam­paigns at Mum­snet, told the BBC: “I think flex­i­bil­ity around cash pay­ments (would be help­ful).

“There might be times of the month where par­ents are able to pay for school din­ners, there might be times where they need to switch to packed lunches.

“Some­thing a lot of par­ents find dif­fi­cult is go­ing to the school sec­re­tary. You don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to go and tell that per­son you’re strug­gling with money.” School meals in Den- bighshire cost £2.20 per day. Forty-three of the county’s schools of­fer the Par­en­tPay sys­tem which elim­i­nates the need for chil­dren to bring cash into school.

Out­stand­ing school meal debt to the coun­cil is £27,000.

Coun­cil pol­icy re­gard­ing over­due pay­ments is that lunch is with­held if par­ents ac­crue a debt of £11.

When a par­ent re­fuses to pay or per­sis­tently sends their child in with­out food or money, the ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­ity (LEA) is in­formed.

If a child is re­fused a hot meal due to a din­ner debt, they re­ceive a cheese sand­wich and a drink.

Din­ners in Wrex­ham cost £2.35 for nurs­ery and in­fants, and £2.40 for ju­niors and high school.

The out­stand­ing school meal debt to coun­cil is £14,422.32 as of Oc­to­ber 26, 2018.

A spokes­woman said: “If par­ents con­tin­u­ally send their child to school with­out a packed lunch, when they have been made aware re­peat­edly that we are un­able to serve them with a meal un­til the debt is cleared, this causes con­cerns over well­be­ing and safe­guard­ing of pupils, and the head­teacher would be re­spon­si­ble for alert­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate ser­vices.”

As of Novem­ber, Wrex­ham par­ents have to pay in ad­vance for their child’s school meals but they will still be fed in the event of a “one-off emer­gency” such as spilling a drink over their packed lunch, or a par­ent gen­uinely for­get­ting to pay for one day.

In such cases, a re­minder is sent home ask­ing for pay­ment to be made the fol­low­ing day.

Bailiffs are em­ployed to act on be­half of the au­thor­ity if no­tices are ig­nored.

Some heads will pay for a meal from school funds but these are in the mi­nor­ity.

Some schools keep emer­gency sup­plies in or­der to pro­vide a ba­sic lunch, and at other schools the cook will pro­vide a sand­wich and piece of fruit.

Meals in Gwynedd pri­mary schools cost £2.50, whereas high schools op­er­ate a cafe­te­ria sys­tem and spe­cial schools charge £2.40.

All pri­mary schools have an on­line pay­ment sys­tem.

The out­stand­ing debt dur­ing the last five fi­nan­cial years up to March 31 is £136,821.21.

The re­spon­si­bil­ity for iden­ti­fy­ing a debt on an in­di­vid­ual pupil ac­count rests with the school.

Cur­rently, the school is ex­pected to send a let­ter to par­ents who have not paid for school meals for a fort­night.

If not paid, the school is ex­pected to trans­fer the debt to the au­thor­ity.

An in­voice is raised against the par­ent which is payable within 28 days, and the debt on the school books is cleared.

Owen Owens, from Gwynedd Coun­cil’s ed­u­ca­tion re­sources ser­vice said: “Over the past year, a new easy-to-use sys­tem has been in­tro­duced in all the county’s pri­mary schools which means it is pos­si­ble for fam­i­lies to pay 24 hours a day.

“This new con­ve­nient process means that par­ents no longer have to find the ex­act money to place in an en­ve­lope to pay for school din­ners ev­ery week.

“This sys­tem also al­lows par­ents to mon­i­tor their pay­ments and to keep track of any pay­ments they need to make.

“As this sys­tem is adopted more widely, it will also lift the ad­min­is­tra­tive ex­pec­ta­tions on schools and en­able the au­thor­ity to be aware im­me­di­ately if debts for school din­ners ac­crue.

“...work is al­ready be­ing car­ried out to tighten ar­range­ments in terms of school din­ner debts.

“As an au­thor­ity, we urge schools to make us aware as soon as pos­si­ble so that we can try to deal with a prob­lem and when pos­si­ble of­fer help to fam­i­lies to re­pay be­fore sig­nif­i­cant debts are ac­crued.”

On An­gle­sey, school meals cost £2.20 - £2.40.

All but three pri­maries of­fer Par­en­tPay.

Owed money – amount­ing to £4,928 in 2018/2019 – is sent to the trea­sur­ers for re­cov­ery.

Debts can reach £24 be­fore lunch is with­held.

In Conwy, in­fant and pri­mary meals cost £2.30 and for sec­ondary pupils, they are £2.45.

Fifty-two pri­mary schools have Par­en­tPay.

The coun­cil’s school meals debt was £39,635.27 as of Novem­ber 5.

The au­thor­ity uses Ja­cobs out­side debt col­lec­tion agency af­ter in­ter­nal debt re­cov­ery process is ex­hausted.

Each school deals with this sit­u­a­tion within its own poli­cies. The child is never re­fused a meal.

A spokes­woman said: “The sys­tem that works best is a ‘zero tol­er­ance’ ap­proach. This may ini­tially ap­pear very hard where there has pre­vi­ously been a cul­ture of debt tol­er­ance. How­ever, schools can only of­fer free meals to pupils where there is a free school meal en­ti­tle­ment.

“Con­tin­ued fail­ure of a pupil’s par­ent / carer to pro­vide a paid or packed lunch, in line with school re­spon­si­bil­i­ties may re­quire es­ca­la­tion to so­cial care/ team around the fam­ily for fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“It is im­por­tant that schools man­age school meal debt ef­fec­tively, as the con­se­quence to a school should a debt ul­ti­mately be writ­ten off is de­duc­tion from the school’s bud­get.”

In Flintshire, school meals cost £2.20 for pri­mary schools.

Schools are re­spon­si­ble for the col­lec­tion of their own school meal pay­ments and debts. Flintshire said it does not hold in­for­ma­tion about the over­all school din­ner debt to the county.

Coun­cils have dif­fer­ent poli­cies on how long debts can be ac­crued be­fore lunch is with­held, and how debts are re­cov­ered

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