Education secretary pressed on FSM vouchers and phased re-opening of schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A phased re-opening of schools, a pledge to tackle the problems in the national FSM voucher system, and a refusal to be drawn on the proposed £700 catch-up premium – Pete Henshaw reports on education Gavin Williamson’s appearance before MPs this week

The education secretary has confirmed that the re-opening of schools will be phased once the coronavirus lockdown is lifted, although no date has been set.

He has said that the Department for Education (DfE) will study closely how schools are re-opened in other countries such as Germany and Denmark, but has ruled out asking schools in England to open over the summer holidays.

Appearing before the Education Select Committee in a virtual hearing held on Wednesday (April 29), Gavin Williamson said that a SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) sub-group has been set-up in order to advise the DfE on how schools can be re-opened safely.

During the session, Mr Williamson also said that he recognises the “real challenges” that schools have been facing in accessing the national free school meals (FSM) voucher system, and says he and his officials are doing “everything we can” to tackle the problems.

Elsewhere, he refused to be drawn on calls to introduce a £700 premium to support disadvantaged pupils to catch-up after the coronavirus lockdown is lifted – but did reveal that the DfE is working on policies to target catch-up support at disadvantaged pupils.

School re-opening

Asked pointed blank by committee chair Robert Halfon MP whether a date has been agreed for the full re-opening of schools, Mr Williamson said it had not.

However, he did confirm that re-opening when it comes would be in a phased manner and that this would be guided by the scientific and medical advice.

He said: “We are working very closely with the whole sector in terms of actually when is going to be the best time to bring the schools fully back into operation. We have set out five clear tests. … we want to make sure that schools are given proper notice. But we do not have a date as to when schools are going to re-open.”

Mr Williamson said that the information they receive from the SAGE sub-group and Public Health England would guide these decisions.

However, he added: “I do expect schools to be opened in a phased manner. I also intend to be giving schools as much notice as possible.”

Later in the hearing, he added: “When we bring schools back, it will be … in a phased manner. We recognise that the idea of schools all returning on day one with a full complement of pupils is not a practical one.”

Asked by Mr Halfon if the DfE has decided on how phasing might work and in what order, Mr Williamson added: “We’re working with the sector and with schools to make sure that when we do this there is a logical and sensible route. We’re looking at many countries across the globe that are a number of weeks ahead of us, nations such as Germany and Denmark, and looking at what works for them and how we can learn from that practice.”

Mr Williamson confirmed that schools will not be asked to open during the summer holidays and instead the DfE will be looking at how it can support pupils to catch-up, especially disadvantaged pupils.

He told MPs: “We’re not planning to run through schools through the summer. We are looking at a whole set of interventions to help children both catch-up in terms of their work – children of all backgrounds – but we’re also looking at different interventions we can make to help children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Catch-up premium

During the session, Mr Williamson refused to be drawn on the proposal from MPs this week for a catch-up premium of £700 per pupil.

The idea has been put forward by a group of 55 MPs and Peers from across the North of England to help pupils catch-up their learning when schools fully re-open.

If implemented for secondary pupils on free school meals (FSM) it would cost around £300 million.

A letter to Mr Williamson signed by the MPs and Peers, states: “The most disadvantaged children fall behind their peers over a long summer holiday, and the shutdown will widen the North’s disadvantage gap, and with it the North-South education divide.”

They say the money could fund “timely interventions which would require around 30 minutes of tuition, three to five times a week over a six to 12-week period”.

The idea of a catch-up premium was raised during the Education Select Committee hearing, with Mr Halfon proposing that it might be used to provide extra tuition and/or mentoring. He said that this could be supported by nationwide network of volunteers such as graduates and retired teachers who might join an education volunteer scheme, similar to that already launched for the NHS.

Mr Williamson responded: “We recognise that we need to put in a whole set of different measures to help all children … but there is a particular issue with some children who are most disadvantaged.”

He pointed to the DfE’s £100 million project to provide free laptops to disadvantaged students in year 10, which he said would see the first hardware being delivered at the end of May with the majority of the devices being delivered in June.

He added: “We are very closely working with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) about the concept of pilots about actually how best we can do targeted support for some of those most disadvantaged children.

“And we have set up a whole stream of work about how, in terms of recovery from this, we can pick up the children who are the most disadvantaged – how we can put in place those interventions that will ensure that they do not suffer any form of educational disadvantage. I want it to be very targeted support that makes a big impact.”

On the potential “volunteer army”, Mr Williamson added: “We’re doing quite a considerable amount of work on a whole range of aspects and policies. Those policies are not yet ready to be launched. We are looking at different ways about how we can use the enormous volunteer army of people who have come forward, many of whom have past education experience. We’re very open to these ideas.”

Free school meal vouchers

The hearing also saw MPs press Mr Williamson over the significant technical problems that schools have had in accessing the national FSM voucher system website being run by provider Edenred.

The system offers weekly £15 vouchers for FSM families which must be ordered by schools online and can be delivered either as e-gift cards or physical vouchers to be posted out by schools.

However, schools have experienced long delays and the website was even forced to go offline temporarily during the Easter break due to “higher than anticipated” demand.

Committee member Ian Mearns MP told the education secretary: “I could probably talk to you for the next 45 minutes about the failings of the Edenred system and the inordinate amount of time it is taking school staff to access the system. I have been collecting horror stories from headteachers about how inaccessible the whole system is to them.”

Mr Williamson responded: “I readily acknowledge that the level of demand for this has been exceptionally high and we have had some big challenges in terms of being able to provide schools with the level of service that we would have really wanted them to see.

“We are doing everything we can do to support them in terms of being able to get these vouchers out as rapidly as possible.

“In the first few weeks, we saw a very slow turnaround in terms of people getting the vouchers out. That has increased substantially. We still have some challenges in terms of schools being able to access as rapidly … being able to place those orders. But we are doing a lot more work with EdenRed to speed that up because we recognise how important that is.”

The education secretary said that funding for FSM that can be provided by schools has continued as normal and that schools have the flexibility to introduce local voucher schemes and claim this money back.

A statement from Edenred said: “We continue to address issues flagged by schools and parents around the ordering and fulfilment of vouchers and make improvements to the scheme.

“As reflected by the large volumes of e-gift vouchers being redeemed every day, the changes we have made are ensuring the scheme is getting easier and faster to use.

“Average waiting times on the site are falling significantly and the number of supermarket e-gift cards being sent to schools and families continues to accelerate as a result of the improvements we have made to the systems and ordering process.”

Edenred says that as of April 29, more than £35 million worth of voucher codes have been redeemed into supermarket e-gift cards, with 15,500 schools having placed orders for the scheme as of April 22.

Mr Williamson added: “We recognise that there have been real challenges with the system. And we really do value the patience that people have shown. Please let me reassure the committee that we are doing everything we can do, both in terms of putting flexibility in the system so schools can work to local need, but equally importantly to make sure that this system works as best as possible for those schools and those parents who are accessing it.”

It comes as McColl’s became the latest supermarket to join the Edenred voucher scheme.


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