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Cashless payment systems at school can help avoid bullying of children on free meals

The summer holidays are now behind us, and for millions of families across the UK, the return of the academic year will bring a host of emotions, writes Ross Macmillan.

For the children, it’s the excitement of meeting up with friends not seen since the end of the school year or the anticipation of moving to a new school. For the parents, it is the ultimate relief of returning to a somewhat normal life, away from the need of having to assume the roles of nanny, entertainer, cook and chauffeur – the crux of this being that it is a time generally seen as being a positive and welcome experience. But unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone.

For some people, the return of the school year can often stir an array of very different emotions with apprehension and fear featuring very prominently in the lead up to the new term. While the start of school represents very contrasting emotions, there is one common link that binds them, which is an all too familiar problem.

Increasingly, many parents are struggling to pay for the most basic of school essentials such as uniforms, lunches and study equipment. A recent report taken from the Children’s Commission on Poverty has found that the gap between low-and high-income families is widening, leading to greater social isolation, bullying and narrowing academic opportunities among pupils.

For children today, the ramifications for the haves and the have-nots can result in very different experiences. The playground can be a very cruel place, and while in the adult world the idea of teasing and bullying someone for not being able to afford lunch or participate in group activities is largely unheard of, unfortunately in the schoolyard it can be an all too familiar occurrence.

Evidence of this is supported in the report in which the stigma associated with free school meal entitlement can often be seen as more damaging than going without a meal.

The children affected by this often find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Neither option is particularly favourable and therefore it is imperative the school is able to recognise this and provide alternative ways to reduce the unnecessary social stigmas. One method currently favoured greatly among parents and teachers is the use of cashless systems, where children entitled to free school meals are anonymised via card based, biometric or photo look-up recognition systems – eliminating any embarrassment or stigmatisation from peers.

The use of cashless payments within schools is growing and is already something widely championed. A head teacher survey carried out last year among more than 400 primary and secondary schools in England found that 71 per cent of secondary schools operated a cashless payments system, while the figure was nearly 30 per cent for primary schools.

In addition, the government recently endorsed a recommendation made to schools in The School Food Plan – an independent review of school food commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education – outlining the benefits of operating a cashless payment system. Not only was this backed to reduce the stigma associated with meal entitlements, but it was also aimed at improving queuing times, reducing school bullying, as well as the risk of theft, as children are not carrying cash around.

In addition, a government report evaluating the two-year pilot of extending free school meal (FSM) entitlement – which became a reality this September in primary schools – found cashless systems were a helpful resource in monitoring and auditing FSM take-up and had a useful role to play in enabling schools to utilise a pre-order system for meal selection.

For the parents, the use of cashless payments also significantly improves communication between the school and parents. It gives them greater visibility over the food that children are eating, enabling parents to understand the nutritional value of the meals so that they can ensure the child is eating healthily while at school. Parents also have greater control over how their children spend the money; as cashless systems ensure funds can only be spent onsite at school, reducing the risk of it being spent on anything they shouldn’t be. Parents are also able to top up accounts easily at any PayPoint or Post Office, again addressing issues surrounding those parents suffering financial exclusion. Payments for school trips can also be made and managed via regular instalments, helping those on the margins budget the expense.

While the use of cashless payments might be viewed as a simple patch, its potential to addressing wider social stigmas amongst pupils and parents can’t be ignored. Cashless payments provide an easy-to-use and most importantly discrete way for pupils to manage their money. Among all the excitement of starting a new school year, there are difficulties facing children and families often lurking in the background. Schemes like cashless payment systems ultimately provide a small piece of mind that helps bridge the gap, providing greater equality in schools.

Ross Macmillan is Market Intelligence Consultant for allpay

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