School food matters - how to pay for it?

Over the past few years and particularly in recent months, catering has become an even more important consideration than ever for schools. Ongoing campaigns to drive standards from figures such as Jamie Oliver, combined with frequent news items such as the shortage of free school dinners, and the little food eaten by secondary school students means that there is little doubt that for parents, school dinners is likely to be one of the school-related issues at the front of their minds. As a result, for schools, catering is one area that they should, and will want, to make as smooth, effective and efficient a process as possible. An important aspect of this is the payment and administration of funds from parents.

Opening up to online payments
Payments between parents and schools are an everyday part of school life, and consequently are a pivotal element in school administrative duties. For many, the usual process involves an abundance of spreadsheet systems used to keep track of data and payments as required, spread across multiple sheets and perhaps only accessible by one individual at a time. This is combined with a growing mound of coins, notes and cheques that must be tracked and counted.

Today, ICT is an increasingly common way to deal with many school daily tasks, such as taking the register, updating exam results, or putting together timetables. It is a logical move therefore that school payments, especially for lunches, is the next thing to go electronic. There are now a growing number of electronic, online payment systems that can work in partnership with cashless catering providers to move the whole catering system to a penny-free process. 

It is not just schools that are considering the potential of online payments; many parents actually want it. New research carried out by ParentMail on more than 14,000 parents across the UK has shown that the vast majority of them (more than 90 per cent) would like the option to pay online for school items including catering, whilst less than half of schools currently allow them to. With technology now a firm feature throughout everyday life, paying online offers a valuable convenience factor with hectic lifestyles. There is a real demand from parents for online payments, and the sad fact is that schools are just not keeping up with this.

Cash v debit cards

This demand is reflected in wider society. According to the UK Payments Council, in 2010 the running total of debit card spending (£272 billion) overtook the cumulative amount of cash spend (£269 billion) in the economy for the first time. By 2018, it is predicted that cash will make up less than half of all UK transactions for the first time. 

The potential benefits for schools of the move to an electronic payment system are multiple and far-reaching. As with many ICT management solutions, these systems are designed to save on administration and the time required by manual jobs such as counting money, trips to the bank, and accurately tracking who has paid for what. The systems are highly versatile, able to be quickly adapted to suit any size school’s needs. As transactions are electronic, they take away the need for a large amount of cash to be stored on site is an attractive security improvement for any school.

Money and cheques can be easily be lost or misplaced by students, or later by staff after collection; electronic systems mean that instances where a cheque might be found down the side of a desk, six months out of date are no longer an issue. Having a transparent system that is easily accessible to both the school and parents removes unnecessary issues of missed payments, or the need to chase repeatedly. This helps to promotes confidence in the school to parents; they can be reassured that financial obligations for their child’s education are being carefully managed in a way that suits the 21st century lifestyle.

By centralising all data required in an open system that is password protected, and can be accessed by numerous individuals at a time, the responsibilities that are part and parcel of the school office do not rest solely on one person’s shoulders. The systems are designed to be accessible and user friendly, are able to track and monitor money and calculate things quickly, meaning that reconciling funds and accounts is an easy process. Office staff can then run automatic, comprehensive reports which can then be sent to the local authority, for example on the reconciliation of dinner numbers and free school meals.

Parent power

For parents, paying for things electronically is now a part of everyday life. The majority of payments are now online, from paying for your car tax or weekly food shop, to your holiday. It can be seen as a puzzle then, that when a child’s school asks for money, there is not the chance to click a mouse and to enter card details, making the process instantaneous. With the regularity that parents need to provide dinner money, it is logical that they expect a quick and easy way of doing so.

This also provides peace of mind in knowing exactly where money is ending up, rather than entrusting a child with a cheque or cash that could be lost, spent on something else or even stolen. Electronic payments solve the problem for both parents and the school of having to get a cash or cheque into school via the child, alleviating this hassle, or having to get parents to take time out to go into school, queue at reception, and hand in the money themselves.

An awareness of school dinner choice and consumption has been an important topic for a while now. The introduction of minimum nutritional standards for school meals in England in 2008 has helped reassure this, but many parents are still concerned about what their children are eating. Electronic systems can keep track of the money spent and give parents feedback on what their children are choosing to eat. Some catering partners can also provide nutritional information on the items chosen from the school menu.

Electronic payment systems have the capability to be used to remind parents of when dinner money is running low, removing the need to have to root around for spare change to buy that day’s lunch at a last minute request. In tight financial times, this also helps parents to budget and track lunch money accordingly with strong benefits as a forward planning tool.

Increasingly, technology is also shifting to allow payments on the move through mobile ‘apps’ usable by web-enabled phones and smart phones. The ongoing march of progress now sees the majority of the mobile owning population using a web-enabled mobile or smart phone; these technologies are increasingly commonplace throughout life. These allow parents to monitor and make payments on the move from wherever is required at a time most convenient to them. It is understandable that schools might be initially concerned about moving to collecting payments online, as any change would involve moving from current tried and trusted ways of doing things into the unknown. There is however little for schools to be concerned about.

Companies that provide these services work closely with cashless catering providers to ensure that the whole process is as smooth, accessible, and well-thought out as possible. Part of this is ensuring system security, as dealing correctly and safely with other’s money is a loaded topic.

Companies that provide payment management services are required by their banking partners to meet strict operational and security criteria. Suppliers of online payment services to schools will use a separate system known as a payment gateway, and it is this service that parents enter their card details into for the payment to be processed. These ‘gateways’ must all be independently verified as PCI DSS (payment card industry data security standards) compliant and demonstrate that the services being used to pay for a trip or buy lunch is both safe and secure. PCI DSS compliance is proof that the organisation has taken steps to ensure that cardholder data remains safe electronically and physically.

Ultimately, electronic payment systems make collecting and managing parent payments easy. The best ones also make it easy for parents to use by providing them with a single account where they can pay for items when children attend different schools, nurseries or after school clubs. Thinking back to our own school days, who would have considered the solutions now available to schools - that time could be spent in the school canteen without pupils having a penny in their pocket?

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