Dinner money debt ‘will ease with new online pay system’
£135k OWED TO COUNTY SCHOOLS IS BEING TACKLED
ABBC Wales report, published last month, found that parents in Gwynedd owed £85,589 in unpaid school meal debts at the end of last year - costing the authority much needed revenue during a time of substantial funding cuts and double the amount shown in any other council.
But according to the latest figures, the problem in Gwynedd is even worse with the publicised figure of £85,539 reflecting only the amount outstanding on the schools’ own books, with another £51,231.74 having been transferred to the authority to solve.
As a result, over the past five years, a total of £136,821.21 was still owed to Gwynedd Council as of March 2018.
Of the published authorities, this compares to £46,164.55 in Powys £46,731.27 in Denbighshire, £38,190.46 in Ceredigion and £26,192.20 in Wrexham.
Garem Jackson, Gwynedd’s Head of Education, told the Education and Economy Scrutiny Committee meeting: “It’s fair to note that we’re only discussing primary schools in this instance as there are separate systems in place.
“The debt system, historically, was a paper system and we were largely dependent on school clerks and schools sent out letters. That has now changed with more amendments also in the pipeline.
“At present, the responsibility of recognising debt on a child’s account is down to the school, who are expected to send a letter out. If no reason nor payment is received, a second letter is sent out notifying that no meals will be available for the pupil unless the situation is resolved.
“But in the majority of cases the schools don’t enforce a policy of refusing to feed a child, and I hope you’d all agree with this viewpoint.”
In March, only six of the county’s 87 schools showed no meal debts at all.
But according to Gwynedd Council, the recent introduction of an online payment system means the process is far more convenient for families while also making it easier for the authority to receive reports about specific debts.
Council officer, Bethan Griffiths added: “Thanks to improved monitoring, we want to see debts passed onto the authority quicker so they don’t sit on the school’s books for a long period of time.
“Thanks to the new online system we have much better access to this information whereas before it was dependant on the school processing the paperwork.
“We also want to look at a central system rather than schools collecting their own payments. I understand it can be difficult for some schools as they’re often communities in themselves and everyone knows one another.
“It can be difficult asking people for money so I can understand how hard it can be and perhaps we need to look at a more central system.”
Owen Owens, Senior Manager at the Education Resources Service, concluded, “The scrutiny report draws attention to the fact that work is already being carried out to tighten arrangements in terms of school dinner debts.
“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.
“As the report notes, we would encourage families finding it difficult to pay for school dinners to contact the Council as soon as possible. It may be the child could be eligible for free school dinners.” ● To discuss any school dinner debts, parents should contact the education department or call 01286 682689.
● Gwynedd Council Offices, Caernarfon