Governors urge review after school dinner debts row

·5-min read

Governors of a school at the centre of a row over dinners have said they will not support a system that refuses to give pupils meals “based on affordability”.

The strategic head of Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle school in Gwynedd, North Wales, had warned parents and carers in a letter that their children would not be given school meals by the cook if their debts were not cleared.

The letter, which suggested pupils would not be fed if they were more than a penny in debt, sparked widespread criticism – including from England footballer and food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford.

Rashford, whose campaigning forced a Government U-turn over providing free school meals to vulnerable children throughout the school holidays during the coronavirus pandemic, tweeted: “Has the pandemic not taught us anything? Can we not be understanding? Come on now.”

On Friday, the governing body of the school called for the procedures set out in the original letter to be “reviewed”.

Sara Lloyd Evans, chair of Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle school governing body, said: “Each school has financial responsibilities and in order to run a school effectively and efficiently budgets have to be followed.

“However, it is important to always consider the bigger picture and that not all matters can be dealt with on a black and white basis. One such matter is the provision of school dinners.

“Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle school governing body will not be supportive of any system which refuses the provision of a school dinner to a pupil based on affordability. This has never been practised at the school to date. The school governing body insists that the procedures set out in the letter are reviewed.”

In a letter to parents and carers, Neil Foden, strategic leader of the school, said he was taking action as there was an “unexpected deficit” in the school meals budget after pupils had run up debts totalling more than £1,800.

A deadline of November 19 had been set for parents to get their children’s accounts up to date – and the cook had been “instructed not to give food to any child” from November 22 if debts were not cleared.

Mr Foden has told PA he was acting under the instruction of the local authority when sending the letter to parents, and added: “The overall approach I was happy with. The debts need clearing, people have to be held accountable. The parents would have been aware.”

However, he added he had previously come up with a solution that would have allowed parents until February to pay off their debts.

He said support is available for any families that are struggling – and children would not have gone hungry.

Mr Foden said: “We have snacks that the children can have the first day and if someone doesn’t send their child with money on the second or third day, that’s their responsibility.

“This is something that is done by a lot of other schools. I don’t know how long it takes to register for free school meals but if someone has a short-term problem or a cash flow problem, we would tell them to contact their child’s head of year who would help them come up with a temporary arrangement. We also have vouchers for the local food bank and we could help them access it so they could send their child with a packed lunch.

“If someone comes to us, for example, and says they have applied for Universal Credit and they are waiting for it to come through, we would come up with a payment plan that would eventually help them pay the debt off.”

The strategic head said ongoing debts would have to be repaid by the school eventually if they have not been paid back by parents, resulting in further losses for pupils.

He said: “The school would have to recover the debts from elsewhere, which could mean a reduction in hours for learning support staff, or a reduction in resources such as books.”

In a statement on Friday, Ms Evans added: “The school governing body is aware that Mr Foden received guidance from the local authority as to how the debts should be managed and following this guidance he sent the letter to parents and carers.

“The governing body will discuss the technical advice provided with the local authority to ensure that there are no future communication difficulties in the future.”

A spokesperson for Gwynedd Council said: “We apologise for the worry and concern caused by the content and wording of a recent letter from Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle to parents regarding school dinner payments.

“As a council, the welfare of children and young people is always our priority, and we will always ensure that no child across the county will face a day without lunch at school. This should be made clear in any letter to parents from the county’s schools when discussing school dinners.

“Having investigated what happened in the case of this recent letter, it seems that technical advice provided by the Education Department on how to deal with school dinner payment debts created a lack of clarity, and we sincerely apologise for the impact this has had.

“In light of this matter, we will review our guidance to schools.

“We would urge any parents or guardians who are experiencing difficulty paying for their child’s school dinners to contact the Education Department or school directly. Their child may be entitled to free school meals.

“If a child is not eligible for the free school meals scheme, we would still encourage families to contact us for guidance and support if they are facing financial hardship.”

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