State education is free at the point of access – and yet attending secondary school costs families a minimum of £39 a week per child.

Research published by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) finds that a range of elements essential to a basic education still require parents to spend a substantial amount of money.

These include school uniform, sports kits, school bags, learning materials, school trips, packed lunches, transport and more.

The study – which covers the whole of the UK – uses the Minimum Income Standard research programme to calculate what parents consider to be the minimum required to meet children’s educational needs.

Excluding before and after-school childcare and household costs like printers, the research found that the annual price tag for going to secondary school is £1,756 per-child and £865 for a primary school child. That’s £18,346 for children to go through all 14 years of school.

With some costs spread across the entire year (such as uniform) and others across the 39 weeks of the school year (transport, packed lunches), this breaks down to an average of £39 a week for secondary schools and £19 a week for primary schools.

 

Figure 1: The minimum annual costs of sending a child to school (source: CPAG, 2023)

 

The research finds that uniform – including PE kit and school bags – costs most for parents of primary children and the second-most for secondary school families.

These costs are particularly problematic as they often come in one lump sum. Uniform costs primary parents £353 on average, rising to £482 for secondary parents.

The report states: “As well as clothing, shoes, bags and extensive PE kit lists contributing to the overall cost, families are increasingly being required to purchase more items from specialist or designated suppliers and with school branding.”

New rules on school uniform introduced by the government in 2021 mean that schools must keep branded items “to a minimum” with high street items allow and single suppliers to be avoided. It states that frequent changes of uniform are to be avoided with second-hand options encouraged. However, schools were only expected to be fully compliant with the guidance by this term. For a summary, see our article here (see also DfE, 2021).

Elsewhere, the biggest cost for secondary school students is transport, which hits an average of £490 a year. Parents of secondary school children also need £280 per year for learning resources (including things like calculator, pencil case, textbooks, revision guides, set texts and subject-specific resources).

Essential trips and school activities set parents back about £160 per-child, per-year for both primary and secondary schools.

The findings come at a time when increasing numbers of children are living in poverty. The total number of UK children living in relative poverty (families with a household income below 60% of median income after housing costs) has risen by around 350,000 to 4.2 million in the period April 2021 to March 2022.

This represents 29% of all UK children and the rise has added further fuel to the campaign for free school meals to be expanded to all those on Universal Credit.

The CPAG report states: “The reality is that accessing education comes with numerous costs. Being able to participate fully in school life, having the resources necessary to do homework, having what you need to join a school sports team and go on educational school trips, and having a school uniform that fits all come at a cost.

“Most families are paying hundreds of pounds a year for what are deemed the essentials needed for a minimum education, and this is before we account for what is required to support children to thrive and feel included at school such as owning a musical instrument, attending a trip abroad or visiting the school fair.”

The CPAG report acknowledges that some families receive government support for things like free school meals, but the level of support varies across the home nations with families in England “receiving the least government support with the cost of going to school”.

Either way, the report concludes that more needs to be done across the board to support families with the cost of education. It states: “This research shows that far more support is needed so all children have the essentials required to take part in school and learn.”

The charity is calling on the home nation governments to ensure all children have as a minimum:

  • Access to affordable school uniform with support available to those that need it.
  • Access to a free hot, balanced meal as part of the school day.
  • The opportunity to attend school residentials and all school trips that enhance learning, with no one missing out due to cost.
  • Access to free transport so that all children can get to and from school every day.
  • Access to a free curriculum with no hidden subject-related costs or charges.

Head of CPAG’s Cost of the School Day programme Kate Anstey said: “Parents are guilt-stricken when their kids are left out at school but when you can’t cover the electricity bill, how is a new PE kit affordable? Our research shows there’s a hefty and often hidden price tag for just the basic essentials needed for school.

“For struggling families, it can feel more like pay-as-you-go than universal education. It’s on each national government to intervene and ensure that every child has at the very least the essentials required to take part in school and learn. Without that intervention, the very idea of universal education and equal life chances for children is undermined.”

Commenting on the findings, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, pointed to their own research showing that 78% of teachers said that they or their school is providing help with uniforms for disadvantaged pupils, while 58% are providing extra food during the day.

She added: “All children and young people should face no barriers to getting the education they deserve. However, as this report shows, for families experiencing poverty this is not the case.

‘While our members work tirelessly to ensure that all children receive the education they deserve, rising child poverty and a cost of living crisis is making that harder. Schools need the funding and the support both from within the school and from external organisations to ensure no child is left behind.”

The CPAG’s Cost of the School Day programme has now worked with 55 schools and 12,000 children to help bring down the cost of the school day.

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