Millions of families struggling with the hidden costs of school


The cost of schooling and its impact on the UK’s poorest families has been laid bare after an investigation led by young people themselves. With 3.7 million children living in poverty, their report makes a series of recommendations for schools and governm

Two-thirds of UK families – around three million households – are struggling with the cost of schooling, with the poorest children facing bullying and restricted access to education as a result.

The Children’s Commission on Poverty has also found that more than half of the poorest families have had to borrow money to pay for essential school items.

Its new report, At What Cost? Exposing the impact of poverty on school life, finds that families on average face a £800 bill per-child, per-year because of school costs.

This figure includes school uniforms, which the report has found cost UK families £600 million a year.

Families are also struggling with the increasing costs of technology, with a third of children in the poorest families saying they had fallen behind at school because their family could not afford a computer or internet facilities at home.

The stigma of free school meals (FSM) is also a reality for many children, with the report revealing examples of schools that segregate their FSM pupils in the canteen, meaning they can be singled out by their peers.

The Children’s Commission on Poverty is made up of a panel of 16 students aged 10 to 19 and its work is being supported by the Children’s Society. The young commissioners are now calling on the government to do more to ensure that all children living in poverty get access to FSMs and that uniforms are made more affordable.

The report’s statistics are based on a September survey of 2,000 households in which 2,000 adults and 2,000 children aged 10 to 17 were questioned.

The results show that 70 per cent of parents say they have struggled with the cost of school, including 95 per cent of parents who live in the poorest families – those who described themselves as “not well off at all” in the survey.

Fifty-two per cent of parents have also cut back on either clothing, food or heating to afford the cost of school, while 25 per cent said they had borrowed money, including half of parents from the poorest families.

School uniforms

The young commissioners said that too many schools are still insisting on a uniform policy requiring parents to buy “expensive items of clothing with embroidered names or logos”. The survey also found that 71 per cent of parents said they had to buy either some or all items of school uniform from a specific supplier.

On average, parents reported spending £108 on school clothing for primary children and £126 for secondary children. However, only 22 per cent of the poorest families got help to buy the uniforms.

The report states: “The cost of school clothes is not just limited to a single school uniform. Some schools have prescriptive PE kits, with many different items for different sports. And some schools have separate summer uniforms or even different uniforms for different years.”

The inquiry also found incidents where having a second-hand uniform, one that is worn out or one that is repaired has led to poorer children falling victim to bullying.

The report calls for schools to implement simpler uniforms with sew-on logos and for the government to strengthen its uniform guidance.

School meals

The report finds that 52 per cent of parents said they struggle with the cost of meals, with 20 per cent of children saying they have missed school meals because they did not have the money to pay for them.

It also warns that some schools are not doing enough to protect FSM children from suffering stigma or bullying by peers.

It adds: “Some schools continue to deliver free school meals in a way that singles out children in poverty, leading to stigma and embarrassment.”

The report quotes examples of schools which segregate children on FSMs in the canteen, force them to join separate queues, or give them FSM tickets – meaning they are easily singled out by their peers.

Within the survey, 19 per cent of the poorest children said that they have been embarrassed because they could not afford school meals, while seven per cent said they have been bullied as a result.

The report calls on the government to expand FSM eligibility to all children living in low-income families by allocating FSM to all families in receipt of Universal Credit.

Another suggestion is that FSM children should be able to “roll-over” any money on their account to the next day (children usually get around £2 a day but can lose whatever is not spent each day).

At the same time, the report calls on schools to introduce cashless catering to remove the stigma that can affect those claiming FSM.

Materials and ICT

The cost of technology, materials and curriculum-related activities is also a problem, often meaning that access to education is restricted for those living in poverty.

The research finds that three in 10 children from the poorest families do not have access to a computer or internet connection at home, while a third say they cannot afford required books or materials.

Furthermore, many children are being “expected to pay for key materials” and poorer students are avoiding taking certain subjects due to the additional cost of equipment or term-time trips, the research reveals.

It also finds that two in five children from the poorest families have missed a term-time trip because of the cost.

This is all despite government guidance stating that “no child should be excluded from an activity simply because his or her parents are unwilling or unable to pay. If a parent is unwilling or unable to pay, their child must still be given an equal chance to go on the visit.”

The young commissioners have called for “poverty-proofing” as a model of good practice for schools – this involves an audit exploring with pupils the costs of school.

The report states: “A first step to tackling the impact of poverty on school life is to make sure schools are aware of these barriers by checking, or poverty-proofing, their ways of working, to make sure they don’t cause problems to children in families on a low income.”


Official statistics show that 3.7 million children are currently living in poverty – a figure which has almost doubled during the past 30 years. The Children’s Society says that nearly two-thirds of these children are in low-income working families. The charity has also previously warned that by 2020, an estimated three quarters of a million more children will be living in poverty than today.

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “Children are supposed to be benefiting equally from a free education. Yet the reality is that UK families are paying billions of pounds each year towards the cost of school. 

“Children are being penalised and denied their right to an equal education simply because their parents cannot afford the basics. This is just not right. 

“The government needs to listen to this crucial report by young commissioners and act to make sure no child is stopped from getting an education equal to their peers. It must stop children from being made to suffer because they are living in poverty.”

The Association of School and College Leaders said that it supports the report’s recommendations, particularly the idea of schools poverty-proofing their activities.

Deputy general secretary Malcolm Trobe said: “We strongly agree that all young people of families in receipt of Universal Credit should receive free school meals. We have been campaigning for all young people living in poverty, including those in low-income working families, to be entitled to free meals.

“We also support the report’s recommendations calling for ‘poverty-proofing’ for all aspects of school activities to ensure that young people and their families who can’t afford extras, such as uniforms or ingredients for cookery lessons, are not disadvantaged in anyway.”

The Children’s Commission on Poverty was launched in October 2013 and is in the midst of an 18-month investigation into child poverty in the UK.


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