The surprising benefits of being a cashless school

Cashless payment systems have moved on from simply being a means to pay for school food or trips, to becoming fully integrated data solutions at the heart of a school - with some surprising benefits. Julia Garvey, deputy director general at BESA, explains

Cashless payment systems have been around for a while now, but they are no longer simply a means to pay for school trips or send in dinner money. Initially, they owed much of their popularity to the fact they made life easier for parents, reduced dinner-money related bullying incidents and reduced the paperwork burden on office staff.   In recent years they have evolved, moving away from hardware-based systems to cloud-based software that enables schools to manage their income and catering provision in real time. With new technology and full data integration with the school management system, these systems offer schools more control over their resource allocation and staff time. They are also helping to address two significant safeguarding risks.

Cashless systems save time and money and eliminate waste

Whilst a cashless payment system won’t increase the school budget, it can help schools to manage their budgets more effectively and reduce waste, which in the current climate is welcomed by many Head Teachers. The latest research* by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) shows that 92 per cent of schools are facing budget uncertainty for the next academic year, with many facing budget deficit or needing to use their cash reserves to make essential purchases. Whilst there are some indications that per-pupil funding will grow in 2021/22, schools still need to maintain a tight hold on their financial management. Cashless payment systems offer the senior leadership team at school and multi-academy trust level live payment tracking and full financial reporting, enabling them to make informed decisions on everything from dining menu-choice based on meals purchased, to preferred payment methods based on parent behaviour, making this an essential tool for the budget manager.

Using cashless systems to reduce the risk of Covid infections

Cashless payment systems have also played a big part in helping schools adapt their operations during the pandemic.

Over the last 12 months, dining processes have had to change significantly. At the height of social distancing, keeping bubbles of pupils and staff separate was imperative but the school canteen was a potential high-risk area. With high traffic, it can be difficult to keep pupils apart so schools had to rethink the way lunches were served, and cashless payments proven central to this planning.

Paul Greathead, divisional sales director at Civica told BESA: “Some schools implemented split service times, with cleaning between cohorts, while some repurposed other areas of the school, serving a reduced menu directly to classrooms or moving tills to the gym, for example. The additional cleaning required saw a shift away from biometric ID methods – around 20 per cent of our customers implemented swipe cards to avoid having students touch the fingerprint readers.”

Cashless systems also enable pupils to select their meals in advance, from any device, again reducing queuing times. And by being able to select from multiple delivery points the system can help keep bubbles separated.

Paul points out that this feature provides additional support for the school budget going forward. “We anticipate that pre-order solutions will become more common, even after the pandemic, as they allow schools to prepare much more effectively, reducing waste and speeding up service.”

Ironically, many cashless systems still have an option to accept cash, so during lockdown these options were turned off and contactless cards were introduced in order to reduce cash handling, but there was also another more high-tech option made available, for those schools willing to adopt something new.

Tony Walsh, director of IdXtra provided BESA with more detail: “During the lockdown, we introduced facial biometric recognition to our cashless system EventPOS and to our visitor management system VisiTapp. This was to reduce the chances of physical contact (when purchasing a meal), to zero and therefore reduce the chance of spreading Covid.”
Once set up, the system can recognise the faces of pupils as they stand in line, thus reducing waiting times and keeping the queue moving. So far take up of facial recognition is still small, but it is expected to grow over the coming years as we become more familiar and trusting of this type of technology.
Cashless payments and Natasha’s Law – reducing the risk posed by allergens

In July 2016 Natasha Ednan-Laperpouse collapsed on a flight from London to Nice and died after having an allergic reaction to a baguette she had purchased at the airport. The bread contained sesame seeds, to which she was extremely allergic, and which were not listed on the packet.

Following her death Natasha’s Law was created and will come into law from October 2021, compelling all purveyors of pre-packaged foods to label them fully, listing all ingredients including the 14 most common allergens.

Whilst this is a step in the right direction, as Walsh says, ‘What use is that for all of the other food and beverage sold in schools and colleges?’ It doesn’t go far enough to eliminate all the risks for schools. The case of Karanbir Singh Cheema, 13, who died from a cheese allergy whilst at school highlights the dangers and the safeguarding issues that food allergies pose. Whilst Karanbir’s case is different from Natasha’s, no school wants to put their pupils at risk, or to put their staff in a position where they have to deal with a potentially life-threatening reaction to something the student has purchased on school grounds.

Cashless catering systems are adapting to help solve this problem. Every food and beverage product can be flagged against the 14 most common allergens. By integrating with the school management information system that data is cross-referenced against each pupil’s profile at point of sale and if an allergen is found the system issues a warning message and prevents the purchase. The pupil will not be able to buy any food or drink containing a known allergen.

This same technology can be used to help manage cultural, religious and dietary preferences such as halal, kosher, vegetarian or vegan diets, eliminating the chances of accidentally eating a hidden ingredient that does not comply. 56% of people between 16 and 29 have tried a vegan diet, according to research by Kelloggs in 2018*, and this trend is set to increase due in part to the influence of social media and high profile climate campaigners such as Greta Thunberg. Being able to give students confidence in the choices they are making with their meals is becoming increasingly important.

Cashless payment systems have moved to become full integrated data solutions at the heart of the school, connecting parents, staff and pupils and saving time, money and, potentially, lives.

*Resources in English Maintained Schools Report, January 2021
* Vegan Life, 30 May 2018

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