A major overhaul of a system called ParentPay that allows parents to pay for school dinners and other pupil expenses has caused confusion among some of its two million users, with MoneySavingExpert.com aware of claims children have even gone hungry at lunchtime as a result.
ParentPay used by 6,000 UK schools is an online payment option for school-related costs including lunches, trips and uniforms.
We've seen more than 150 complaints on social media from parents struggling to get to grips with ParentPay's new system, which was launched last week. One declared: "It's a nightmare. I thought they were improving it? Slow, twice as much to do, no alerts working."
To make matters worse, the ParentPay website has suffered multiple technical problems since the revamp, further angering parents. In its latest update, ParentPay tweeted: "We can see some of you are experiencing slow running technical team are investigating."
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What are the problems?
ParentPay rolled out 'My Account' a new system that lets parents preload money onto the site using a credit or debit card on 8 June.That money can then be used to pay for individual items (such as a school trip) or parents can move it into a separate balance that funds their child's school meals. Pupils then pay for their meals at school without cash, often by using a swipe card.
But 'My Account' has baffled some parents used to the previous system of topping up the school meals balance directly.
- Some have topped up their 'My Account' and left the money there, mistaking it for the school meals balance. In a few cases this has left children without enough money to eat in the school canteen. ParentPay says it contacts parents who've done this to prompt them to complete their dinners payment.
- Others have experienced slow loading and problems logging in, which left them unable to pay for their children's dinners or trips ParentPay has repeatedly apologised on Twitter for these issues.
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'My child had no dinner'
Since the changes last week, ParentPay has been inundated with negative comments on review website Trustpilot, where it has an average rating of just 1.5 out of 10.
"A poor website updated to become even worse. Virtually unusable. Hopelessly unintuitive," wrote John Wastle.
"Appalling. Topped up my son's account five hours ago, got the standard confirmation email to say it had gone through. He's just called to say (lunch time) there's no money on his account, and now has been refused food," wrote S Johnson.
"The website seems to change every month. It takes me about half an hour every month to pay for after-school club," added Samantha Wright.
Parents also vented their anger on Twitter:
@ParentPay I can't top up my child's account only my account My child had no dinner on Monday coz of this really poor "improvements" Mrs.blastedmonkeyc (@msblastedmonkey) June 14, 2016
Very disappointed at new, much more complicated @ParentPay website - used to take 5 mins to log on & pay. Now, can't even see how to pay :( Monique Nowers (@KikiNowers) June 12, 2016
What can you do?
Other than technical problems with the site which have stopped some logging in, ParentPay says the new system is actually working as it's supposed to it's just that many are finding the process confusing and therefore some payments have been affected. ParentPay says it stands by 'My Account', and claims the revamp was supported by its own "extensive independent research with parents".
ParentPay is keen to stress that, contrary to the claims of some parents, there is no need to maintain a credit balance in your 'My Account' and it says you can still pay for items or top up your dinners balance directly, without having to top up or allocate money from 'My Account'. To do this:
- Log in to your ParentPay account and select the item you want to pay for. The system will detect that you have no funds in 'My Account' and prompt you to add a payment, giving the exact price of the item as an option, and then you simply pay.
- At this point you can also top up additional funds to 'My Account' should you choose to, but you aren't required to.
ParentPay's also urging parents to be aware of the following features:
- Parents can make a withdrawal directly from their 'My Account' balance, if they have not already used it to pay for school items. The funds are returned directly to the card used to pay.
- If you need a refund for a school item you've bought (such as a cancelled school trip), your school can return the money to your 'My Account'. You can then use this credit to pay for other items or withdraw it to your payment card.
- There are a number of new features coming in the autumn term designed to make the new system easier, including the option to have meal costs taken automatically from the 'My Account' balance.
For full info on the ParentPay changes and how to use the new system, see ParentPay's FAQs.
Were parents and schools warned?
While some parents claim say they've been caught out by the changes, ParentPay told us: "We've been communicating with schools for about nine months and parents for about six months ahead of the release. A tutorial was online at the login for parents to view for about 12 weeks prior to the new release, and there is lots of help and guidance available online."
At least one school we're aware of (St Mewan Community Primary School in St Austell, Cornwall) is now offering ParentPay help sessions to parents who are struggling with the new system.
What does ParentPay say about the changes?
A spokesperson says: "Parents continue to be able to pay the exact amount for individual items, without any need to maintain a balance with ParentPay. Should they wish, parents can also now load their account and pay for items from this balance as and when they need to, providing maximum flexibility.
"Parents with more than one child can now maintain a single balance for school meals, to allocate to one child or another, without asking the school to refund. This is especially useful for parents with children in different schools.
"Any refund from school, for instance a cancelled trip, is returned immediately to the parent's ParentPay 'My Account'. Parents can then use those funds immediately to pay for a different item, or they can withdraw the funds should they wish."
ParentPay also told us that parents would now benefit from lower minimum payments when using the site. Previously schools set minimums of between £10 and £15 for parents paying in to the site, but ParentPay has set a new lower limit of £2 for topping up 'My Account'. It's encouraging schools that have kept their own higher minimum payments for individual items to reduce or remove them.
The changes also mean ParentPay can pay schools the money they're owed more quickly, the company added.
What's the background to all this?
ParentPay is a Coventry-based, privately-owned software company providing payment systems for UK schools. It's free for parents to use, and is paid for by schools and local authorities.
Some UK schools no longer accept cash payments, and others are moving towards being totally cashless in future.
The Department for Education has declined to comment on the changes, saying parent payment methods are a matter for individual schools to determine.