Using Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to deliver free school meals

Boy eating pack lunch

Written by Sarah Talbot, Emerging Technologies Lead at Swindon Borough Council.

In Swindon Borough Council where I am Emerging Technologies Lead we have faced a great many challenges as a result of the first year of COVID-19. One area has been a large increase in application for Free School Meals. My team has had to quickly initiate an innovative digital transformation project as the pandemic hit, enabling it to meet surging demand and ensure that local children could access much-needed support.

With more families entering the benefit system, applications for Free School Meals across our region rose more than 2,000% in  March 2020, compared to 2019 figures, and they remain consistently high. So the past 12 months have been incredibly difficult for many families. Through embracing new technology however we have been able to make a genuine difference to real lives and outcomes.

In the case of free school meals our  team developed a strategy that used a digital solution to eradicate manual processes where appropriate and achieve previously unattainable speeds for the processing of requests – achieving a 98% efficiency increase. 

This innovative approach enabled a team of four people to successfully manage the scale of the issue and reduce the turnaround time for parents and carers by 66%, helping to provide reassurance as well ensuring children were provided with vital nutrition.

We utilised Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology to create instantaneous communication between the council and the Department of Education. The synchronisation in data between systems (the Department for Education portal, Jadu and CapitaOne) has also achieved multiple benefits, including providing parents and carers with confirmation of eligibility at speed, as well as safeguarding sensitive information and reducing the opportunity for error by removing the need for information to be recreated on multiple databases. The Swindon team together with technology experts from outside built a seamless, automated digital process.  

The resulting service enables a parent or carer to complete an online form that, once submitted, is automatically checked against the data held in relevant systems. On occasions where data needed to be resubmitted later, for example when an application for Universal Credits was being processed by the Department for Work and Pensions, the system automatically schedules a re-check.

The success of the Free School Meals project as a Proof of Concept enabled my team to create a new RPA system for the Children’s Social Care team, which integrated children social care processes (between CareDirector and CapitaOne). The team was able to build on existing investment and learnings to achieve time and cost efficiencies.

Our Proof of Concept was successfully delivered in just two months by a very small team and at the height of a global pandemic. I believe that our success was achieved through true partnership and collaboration between Swindon Borough Council and a supplier NDL. We’re incredibly proud of what we have been able to achieve so far on behalf of residents in our region, instilling new ways of thinking and pushing forward with innovation to deliver the best service possible.

Our digital-first approach enabled us to adapt quickly in a crisis and ensure applications were handled with precision and at speed, which made a meaningful difference to the lives of families that would otherwise have faced potentially significant delays accessing support in a time of need. This same situation is also being faced by the 150 other Local Authorities across the country, and we hope that they will find the learnings in Swindon useful as they consider their strategy moving forward.”

For more information, please contact [email protected] or visit to download the case study.

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