School meal debt approach changed by council to help 'remove stigma'

The council applied principles from COSLA with an emphasis on more support for families.

Changes have been made to how school meal debt is handled in Renfrewshire after a comprehensive review of the council’s approach.

A revised process with an emphasis on pastoral support and helping families experiencing financial insecurity has been developed by the local authority.

It was confirmed the council had applied Cosla principles – which include minimising stigmatisation of children and families and effective communication with parents and carers – as it carried out the work.

Alastair MacArthur, director of finance and resources, provided an update on the exercise at last Wednesday’s Fairer Renfrewshire sub-committee.

He said the process had been “reshaped” in an effort to “remove stigma” wherever possible and proactively link families to the support they need if they are showing signs of “financial stress” amid a potential build-up of debt.

Mr MacArthur also outlined what will be different going forward, including more supportive reminder letters and putting advice and support at the heart of the overall approach.

Notably, external debt collection services, which were paused during the review, will not be used to recover school meal debt.

This will be managed by the council’s finance recovery team when necessary.

Speaking after the sub-committee, Councillor Graeme Clark, vice-chair and Labour representative for Paisley Northeast and Ralston, said: “Cosla has very good guidelines which we’ve now adopted and that’s important because obviously we’re dealing with families in vulnerable situations and it’s important that we do that well.

School meal
Renfrewshire Council have already written off more than £48,000 of school meal debt. Photo: Getty Images.

“Vital steps have been taken – language is increasingly important as we deal with all sorts of situations, but the way that we communicate and write to people in this situation is really important.

“It can create quite a bit of angst if people get letters that seem to be overly demanding when you’re facing a whole lot of complex issues.

“The work of Fairer Renfrewshire has been a really important part of the council.

“We’ve done a lot to alleviate poverty across Renfrewshire and that has to include working to alleviate child hunger in schools.”

More than £48,000 of school meal debt has already been written off by the council.

A further £14,000 of outstanding payments is also due to be cancelled.

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