Council apologises for letter saying children in debt would be refused school meals
Gareth Williams, local democracy reporter
Gwynedd Council has apologised for a letter sent to parents warning that pupils in debt at a secondary school would not be fed.
The Council has confirmed it will review the policy, and has has said sorry for the “worry and concern caused by its content and wording,” which caused uproar in the local community.
Governors at a Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle have now vowed that no child will be denied a school meal and called on the council to “review the procedures”.
The row started after parents of pupils at Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle were informed that the school cook had been “instructed not to give food to any child” unless their individual accounts were out of the red by November 19.
According to the letter sent out in the name of the Penygroes school’s headteacher, Neil Foden, “a handful of pupils had run up debts totalling more than £1,800,” resulting in an “unexpected deficit” in the school meals budget.
But the move sparked a major backlash both locally and further afield, with even Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford urging the school to be “more understanding”.
On Thursday Gwynedd Council said it did not operate a blanket policy of refusing meals to pupils and would discuss this matter directly with the school.
In a further update on today, however, the school’s governing body confirmed they would not back any moves that would result in children being refused a meal.
‘Substantial media interest’
In light of the “substantial media interest,” they convened an urgent meeting on Friday and concluded that while the current online payment system was “inefficient” it was also “vital to consider the bigger picture.”
Stating that “while budgets have to be followed,” they stressed that “not all matters can be dealt with on a black and white basis.”
“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.”
The governors added they would now “discuss the technical advice provided with the local authority to ensure that there are no future communication difficulties in the future.”
Calling for a more general debate on measures to tackle child poverty and the principle of free school meals for all children, they added there had been “regular” reports of teachers storing snacks in their classrooms in order to provide food for children who come to school without breakfast.
School decision makers also claimed that the online payment system is “inefficient,” with issues including a lack automated messages sent out to parents to inform them of their debt, the inability to top-up by using cash, and the minimum bank transfer payment amount being £10.
They concluded: “The school governing body will hold discussions with the local authority and the strategic leader in order to discuss matters and ensure that the arrangements for dealing with school dinner debt is managed fairly and effectively and ensuring that the welfare of pupils are prioritised.”
Gwynedd Council, in a further statement, apologised “for the worry and concern caused by the content and wording of a recent letter to parents regarding school dinner payments.”
‘Welfare of children’
The authority added: “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.”
According to Foden, the parents of some 70 pupils had run up debts, with three owing more than £100.
There had been a failure to resolve such debts, he added, despite those owing money to the school being texted on a weekly basis with letters also sent out.
All debts over £10, the correspondence noted, would be transferred to Gwynedd Council with invoices to be issued.
The letter, sent to all parents and guardians, noted that a deadline of November 19 had been set to get their children’s accounts up to date.
While apologising for the need to take such an approach, Foden said “the scale of the default means that something clearly has to be done” noting there had been a deficit in the school meals budget at the conclusion of the last half term.
‘Shouldn’t have arisen in first place’
Arfon MS Sian Gwenllian said that the situation “shouldn’t have arisen in first place” and had been in touch with education chiefs.
“I felt the content of the letter was unacceptable, and many constituents have approached me to express their concern and anger about the development.
“I understand that the decision will be overturned, but nevertheless, the school’s catchment area includes pockets of Gwynedd which face great economic hardship, and this situation should never have arisen.”
Releasing a joint statement, Dyffryn Nantlle councillors Judith Humphreys (Penygroes) and Craig ab Iago (Llanllyfni) added: “As councillors and school governors, the well-being of our children and young people is paramount.
“We believe that no child or young person should be declined a school meal, whatever the circumstances, and it’s important to note this is Gwynedd Council policy.
“We would urge any parents or families who are concerned or are having difficulties with school meal payments to contact Gwynedd’s Education Department or to speak to the school directly.
“As parents ourselves, both our doors are open to discuss or support any family who need guidance or a helping hand with issues surrounding school meals for their children.”