Virtually all London school students have Oyster cards – why not use them for school dinners too?
Trinity School CHIPS systemA simple swipe with an Oyster card pays for school dinnerAn innovative cashless catering system being piloted in Lewisham schools has enlisted students' Oyster Zip Cards for handling their dinner money.

Developed by Lewisham Council strategic lead for ICT Tom Cooper and software developers MH Systems, the service is based on a system known as CHIPS and ensures that students no longer have to use cash for school meals. Instead, the money is loaded into an online account and the pupils use their Oyster cards to identify themselves at the till.

Life is also made easier for parents as accounts can be topped up using credit cards via the council’s own internet payment portal so they no longer need to give their children cash to carry around every day which may, or may not be used for lunch. The next version of the council portal will allow parents to see what their children have bought.

Tom Cooper says: “The introduction of cashless catering utilising Transport for London’s Oyster Card is exciting, innovative and cost effective. It is an example of how we can optimise existing technology and work with our partners to increase the take-up of school meals and ensure that parents are engaged in the process.

'All London schools could use Oyster for cashless payments'

Tom CooperTom Cooper: 'substantial savings'“We plan to offer this ground-breaking cashless catering system to all secondary schools in Lewisham. It’s a proof of concept as far as we are concerned and the door is now open for any London school to exploit Oyster cards in this positive way and make substantial savings."

Students from Conisborough College, Sedgehill School and Trinity School in Lewisham have been testing the scheme since December 2010. Initially, they loaded the cards with cash at the payment machines located in their schools. But in February the scheme expanded to enable parents to pay for school meals online, using the council’s own online payment system.

MH Systems, a software company, carried out the development work to integrate Oyster Cards with Chips, a dedicated cash management system used in some schools and other organisations. The pupils and parents load money into the pupils’ account and the value of the sales is deducted from the account when the cards are presented at tills.

The same practice applies to pupils who qualify for a free meal allowance and, as the process is completely automated and invisible to others around, it de-stigmatizes the process as the pupils no longer have to hand over vouchers to claim their meal. The system is also very secure as the identity of the cardholder is checked by the till operator using the photograph printed on the Oyster ZIP card which is pre-printed by TFL, or by the CHIPS system showing a photograph on the till for the operator to check.

The developers neatly sidestepped the need to develop the technology inside the Oyster cards by simply utilising the serial number of each card to link to the student’s account in the CHIPS system. This saved development costs and means that the digital cash is held in the school’s sytem rather than in the card where it might be vulnerable to misuse. Because it's based on serial numbers, schools could use any items owned by teachers or students as long as they have their own serial numbers.

Balsamic vinegar with salad for a school dinner? Yes, Trinity School

Chartwells, the caterering company which provides school meals for Lewisham, has used the introduction of the new cashless catering system to revamp its range of offerings. A brand new menu was developed for Trinity School which brought in three hot alternatives including vegetarian. And a sample lunch (pictured below) was certainly up to restaurant standards. Ever seen balsamic vinegar with salads in a school canteen? Take a trip to Trinity and prepare to be surprised.

Trinity School dinnerAs a result canteen services have experienced a surge in popularity, with fewer students searching out alternatives like the once-popular Sainsburys at the end of the road. As one Year 7 girls ruefully explained: “My dad puts extra money on my card to make sure I don’t go to Sainsburys."

The  CHIPS trial is due to end shortly, after which it is hoped the scheme will be offered to all Lewisham secondaries.

Lewisham Council has an enviable reputation for innovation. For example, one of the big worries of those involved in the Building Schools for the Future programme was that the nature of the contracts and the 'key performance indicators' for ICT managed services tended to stifle innovation because risk was factored out of the picture.

Tom Cooper worked closely with Partnerships for Schools to create what became known as the "innovation bubble" to counter the conservative nature of the contracts. This helped schools to take the risk element out of the contracts so that innovative technology could be adopted and schools would be able to better cope with the accelerating rate of technological developkments.

This innovation bubble was piloted with Lewisham schools and this has meant that as BSF progressed in Lewisham, schools have been able take up the most recent technologies as they emerged, rather than take 'safe', standard technology that might appear rather uninspiring by the time the new schools were open. So it's no coincidence that Trinity School, which opened in January this year, now has a cutting edge but relatively inexpensive cashless catering system.

Loading Oyster card for CHIPS systemIt's simple to load Oyster card for CHIPS systemThe advantages of Lewisham's CHIPS system:

  • Smart cards usually cost from £1.50 per pupil, but all London students have Oyster cards so they are free to the school;
  • The use of the oyster card eliminates administration overheads for the school in terms of replacement cards and new cards every year for Year 7s;
  • Oyster cards have a perceived high value for pupils so they take greater care of them which reduces wastage and card damage (the CHIPS system can still provide access for pupils awaiting replacement cards);
  • The use of the council’s own payment portal removes the need for a third-party system for internet payments, saving the school, on average, £1 per pupil per year;
  • The introduction of a cashless catering system tends to increase the uptake of school free meals, and has been shown to increase turnover in a school canteen by as much as 50 per cent;
  • A cashless system brings savings in the administrative and cost overhead of a school handling and banking cash.

A spokesman for M H Systems estimated that an average school of, say, 800 pupils using four tills could expect to increase sales in the first year by between 20 and 50 per cent. The capital costs for a standard system using smartcards and a third-party portal would be about £20,000 while the capital costs for using Oyster cards and the council portal are £15,000. He reckoned that an outright up-front purchase would pay for itself within 8 to 12 months.

So what's next for Tom Cooper? With around two years to go for BSF in Lewisham, his hands are full ensuring that the best and most up-to-date ICT is going into the borough's new and refurbished schools. When he's not working closely with schools and their communities he'll be putting the finishing touches to the innovation room he has put together for local educators. There they can get hands-on experience with the best of emerging technologies – anything from 3D design and rapid prototyping to Microsoft's Kinect and Xbox. If 10 minutes of shooting the rapids in a virtual inflatable without getting wet and playing musical instruments projected on to the floor are anything to go by, there won't be a dull moment.

More information

David Hesketh, sales director, M H Systems Ltd
Tel: 01732 367227
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Tom Cooper
Tel: 07725 143 010
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Tom Cooper on Twitter

Gary Simms, Lewisham smartcard project manager
Tel: 0208 314 8280
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Janet Smith, Lewisham catering process manager
Tel: 0208 314 8550
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