Background to the report

On 18 March 2020, the government announced that, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in England would close on 20 March 2020 for all pupils except vulnerable children and children of key workers. The Department for Education said that it expected schools to continue to provide free meals during term time to pupils eligible for benefits-related free school meals who were not attending school. On 31 March 2020, the Department announced a national free school meals voucher scheme, as a temporary substitute for the normal arrangements. The vouchers were worth £15 per week for each eligible child.

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The Department awarded a contract to administer the voucher scheme to a private contractor, Edenred (UK Group) Ltd (Edenred). Schools had a choice whether to use the scheme or to make local arrangements. Schools participating in the scheme ordered electronic codes (eCodes) online that could be converted into shopping vouchers for families to use at nominated supermarkets. The vouchers were mainly in the form of electronic gift cards, although paper vouchers could be printed.

Content and scope of the report

This investigation was prompted by reports in April 2020 of problems that schools and parents were experiencing when using the scheme, including difficulties and delays in accessing the Edenred website to order eCodes and convert them to vouchers.

This report covers eligibility for free school meals (Part One), the voucher scheme’s design and procurement (Part Two), performance (Part Three) and costs (Part Four). We did not assess the value for money of the voucher scheme or cover alternative local arrangements that schools may have put in place.

Read more about our work on the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“DfE got the voucher scheme up and running quickly to support vulnerable children who would no longer be receiving free meals at school.

“Problems at the start of the scheme led to a frustrating experience for many schools and families, but DfE and Edenred worked hard to get on top of these issues. Performance steadily improved as the scheme progressed.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (2 Dec 2020)

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