Going Cashless - a recipe for good financial management


Back in 2009 the previous Government implemented new legislation based on food standards for school lunches in England. At the time, the responsibility was placed on the local authorities to measure the take up of school meals, coupled with the monitoring of menus to ensure they and their schools were compliant. This legislation introduced the need for schools to gather data on school meals, something that they had previously not had to do. As a result we started to see secondary schools showing an increasing interest in cashless catering systems to help them collate this data, refine current administration systems and assist them in meeting the forthcoming legislation.

Evidence gathered by the Schools Food Trust in 2009 from secondary schools, indicated that half the schools were already operating a cashless system. However, these schools also benefited from a range of services provided by these systems over and above simple data capture.

Reducing bullying and theft
The most obvious benefit of using such systems is the removal of the need for students to bring cash into schools. It also reduces the opportunity for bullying and theft by removing cash from the student and the school. This issue leads directly to the next benefit of cashless catering systems, that being the time they save school administrative staff in counting, managing and recording each envelope of money that comes into the school. Instead money is transferred online by parents into their child’s record in the system. Whether this money is for school meals, trips, or books the time saving benefits in terms of the collection and management of money for both parents and the school are obvious.

Cathy Tilley, business manager, the Queen’s C of E Primary School, Richmond says “Having an electronic payment system installed also responded to parent demand. Many parents purchase things over the internet nowadays and so are used to this way of payment.” In fact, internet sales hit a record £58.8 billion in 2010, an increase of 18 per cent on the previous year. After the introduction of a cashless catering system by BESA member, ParentPay Marianne Lewis of Croydon Council said: “Dinner management administration workload has been reduced by 80% in some cases.”

Of course, as with any use of technology that management, security is a concern and should be a key consideration when implementing any cashless catering system. Taking another payments solutions supplier and BESA member, ParentMail as an example, all data on their ParentMail iPad package is stored in the ‘cloud’, not on the iPad providing another level of security.

As more autonomy is given to schools the reporting facility of these systems is vital to school leader’s management. Knowing how much is being spent on school meals with the local authority or alternative provider and how many children take school meals, gives school leaders the opportunity to manage their budgets more effectively and be aware of cost saving opportunities.

Feed me better
In 2005, the television series ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’ officially launched his ‘Feed Me Better’ campaign to get good, healthy and well balanced food into Britain’s schools. Since this time, significant changes have been made to school food. While Oliver stresses there is a long way to go to achieve his vision, a new poll announced on 4 October 2011 by the School Food Trust found that many parents are failing to put fruit and vegetables into their children's lunch boxes, with 40 per cent not containing any for their children to eat. This compares to just ten per cent of school meals, which are mostly designed to ensure pupils go some way to getting their five-a-day. The research actually suggested that cashless catering systems in schools could prove to be a way of making school children healthier.

Figures, published by the School Food Trust and Local Authority Caterers Association in July 2011 showed that an average of 44.1 per cent of children in primary schools and 37.6 per cent of pupils in secondary school opted for school meals in the 2010-11 year, up from 41.4 and 35.8 per cent respectively in the previous year. Because a school meal accounts for one-third of a child’s daily nutritional intake it is important for it to be good and balanced. Children’s Minister Sarah Teather recently said: “Healthy eating has a direct impact on behaviour, concentration and ability to learn in schools. It is vital that we help schools, children and parents develop healthier attitudes to nutritious food from a young age.”

Once again, the benefits of cashless catering systems are realised because the school can, at any time, run a report on what each child has eaten that day, week or month, to ensure they are eating a stable, nutritionally balanced diet.

Stephen Hetenyi of Gloucestershire County Council commented after the introduction on their ParentPay system: “The new online payment system has contributed greatly to a very successful project; meal uptake has increased by 26 per cent since the start of the contract. The convenience that paying online is offering parents combined with our new fresh meal approach is really paying dividends.”

The UK currently has the highest rate of childhood obesity in Europe, with 25 per cent of young people being classified as obese or overweight. For these, with support from the parents, the school can manage the child’s diet and calorie intake. The reporting also gives schools the opportunity to bring their diet into the Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) curriculum. Encouraging children to make better food choices at school is absolutely vital.

Cashless catering systems also ensure that those students who receive free school meals are not discriminated against. Recording on the system that a child receives free school means that it is only the school management team that need know the status of this child. Aside from whether they have free schools meals or not, for a few students today, it is also possible that a good school meal may be the only nutritious food they eat that day.

As schools move away from local authority control and have to manage the provision of school dinners we can expect to see an increase in the adoption of cashless catering systems. The increasing part that cashless catering is playing in schools is reflected in the evolution of the systems available. For example, BESA member ParentMail, used by over 5,000 schools, now offers primary schools an iPad package. The package brings together the company’s electronic communications and payment suite with an innovative portable dinner register - all installed and supplied on an iPad on a flexible lease basis.  A smartphone app enables parents to top up their child’s dinner money account online or via their smart phone. Then, in the school canteen, caterers simply select an image of the particular pupil buying lunch and the system automatically deducts the cost of the meal from the child’s ParentMail account. When a parent’s balance falls low, the system automatically reminds parents when funds need topping up.

Many cashless catering systems use ParentPay Data Capture™ to send till transaction details back to ParentPay. This means a parent can view detailed account statements online and even see the meal choices their child makes - helping them to keep an eye of their child's nutrition.

About BESA
BESA has over 300 members which include manufacturers and distributors of equipment, materials, books, consumables, furniture, technology, ICT hardware and digital content - all to the education market. The total turnover of BESA members is in excess of £1.8 billion.