More than £47,000 of school meal debt will be written off by Renfrewshire Council in a bid to ease pressure on struggling families.

The step has been taken as part of a wider review which aims to refresh the local authority’s approach to the outstanding debts.

Departments are working on a revised process with an emphasis on pastoral support and signposting to services that support people experiencing financial insecurity.

A report on the subject will be considered at the Fairer Renfrewshire sub-committee this week. 

Glasgow Times:

Depute council leader Jacqueline Cameron, chair of the committee, said: “We are very conscious of the pressures many of our families are facing with the cost of living and had committed, as part of the work of the Fairer Renfrewshire sub-committee, to review how we manage outstanding school meal debts.

“That work is ongoing, however, we have taken the decision in the meantime to write off a number of outstanding school meal debts to alleviate the pressure on families.”

The exact amount of invoiced school meal debt to be written off by Alastair MacArthur, the council’s director of finance and resources, is £47,573.25.

Payment for school meals is handled through a cashless catering system called Parent Pay, the report explained.

Where a pupil receives a free school meal, the system is credited with a sum covering the cost of the lunchtime meal.

Account balances are visible to catering staff at the point of purchase and they let pupils know when the balance is low.

The council has a policy of never allowing a child to go hungry at lunchtime and a meal will always be available, even if there are no funds in the account.

If this is the case for two days, catering staff notify the school’s pastoral support staff.

As part of the process, head teachers have had discretion over how Parent Pay debt is managed.

Weekly reports are available to schools which identify where debts are accruing. Account balances can be viewed at any time.

At this point, pastoral staff should contact families to ascertain the circumstances and, if appropriate, signpost them to advice services.

The head teacher also has authority to use their budget to allow the debt to be waived in particular circumstances.

If a debt was outstanding, it would be transferred from Parent Pay to the council’s enterprise resource planning system once an invoice was raised.

Non-payment would trigger debt recovery processes, which involve unpaid debts passing to the council’s collection agent if they remain unpaid after the timetable for recovery has passed.

The collection agent had no powers to take any form of legal recovery action but would contact a customer regarding any unpaid debt.

In light of the review, the use of a collection agent for school meal debt has been “paused”, the report added.

It is expected that an updated process will be implemented by the local authority in the early part of next year.

Councillor Cameron, an SNP representative for Johnstone South and Elderslie, added: “Every child in Renfrewshire will always receive a school meal.

“It is our priority to support our families to help maximise their income and we provide a range of services to help identify support, which includes the work to review our processes for handling and writing off school meal debt.

“We have also recently introduced a new schools support service within some of our schools to provide on-site advice for those who need it.

“We would also urge anyone who is concerned about their finances to seek advice either through Renfrewshire Citizens Advice Bureau or the council’s Advice Works team.”