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TNC…where curious minds can access wholesome news commentary

‘Our school had children who couldn’t afford event days’ | Poverty

It was the “special occasions” at her children’s school that Anna (name changed) struggled with. She and her partner both work but, with four children, stumping up the cash for Halloween costumes, Christmas jumper days or pyjama days was tricky.

“Sometimes we could manage, other times we couldn’t,” she said. “I’ve kept my kids off school in the past when we couldn’t afford to send them in with whatever it was that they were meant to have.” On other occasions, such as book fairs, she would have to borrow money.

“There’s a lot of pressure to get the new book, and they get this catalogue thing sent home so they get all excited and get their hopes up about it. You don’t want to disappoint them.”

About 4.2 million children were living in poverty in the UK at the last official count – an average of nine out of every class of 30. About a third of those children were eligible for free school meals, but school expenses also include special days, uniforms, trips, gym kits, pencils and pens. Many families find it difficult to cope.

Rising poverty and destitution levels since the pandemic made it even harder, even when schools closed. The Child Poverty Action Group, one of the Guardian and Observer 2020 appeal charities, found the cost of buying books, paper and tablets for children at home fell most heavily on low-income families.

CPAG has helped pioneer work with schools to help reduce the impact of of those expenses through its Cost of the School Day project. “We are talking about sometimes really small changes. Often there is no cost to the school, it’s just ways of doing things differently and seeing life through the eyes of a child in poverty,” said CPAG’s Kate Anstey.

Ardler primary school in Dundee, Scotland, where Anna’s children are pupils, sits in an area of high deprivation. “Poverty is a big factor for lots of our families,” said Ardler’s headteacher, Louise Reid. When the Cost of the School Day project came to the city in 2017, practitioners worked closely with staff and pupils to investigate the hidden costs of schooling.

“They helped us change our thinking so that, whatever we were doing in school, we’re always considering the cost that might have for parents,” Reid said.

“We had children historically that wouldn’t attend on event days because they didn’t have what was required, they wouldn’t have the costume. Even dress-down days, that can be quite a cost implication for some children if they don’t have the best trainers or the clothes that some children expect them to wear.”

Now pupils make their own costumes in school, and dress-down days no longer happen. Other changes included eliminating the cost of school trips, an extended breakfast club, and changes to uniform policy – including allowing parents to use plain, unbranded clothing for their children.

Jane Allen, Ardler’s family development worker, worked with CPAG to make videos publicising the kinds of financial support on offer to parents, including the school clothing grant and Scotland’s best start grant. She also communicates directly with parents that the school knows are facing difficulties.

“It’s just trying to get parents aware of what benefits are available to them and what grants that they can apply for that might make things a little bit easier financially for them,” Allen said.

Initially inspired by the work of another charity, Children North East, CPAG began Cost of the School Day in 2014 with a pilot project in Glasgow, before expanding to Dundee three years later. Last year, the project crossed the border into England and Wales, including in Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Coventry, and the London boroughs of Greenwich, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea.

The work goes beyond supporting individual schools, said Anstey. CPAG’s practitioners synthesise information gleaned from schools in an area to build a picture of how poverty affects school children, to inform wider policy decisions.

“For example, in Scotland it’s been used to make changes to transport costs,” she said. “Because one of the barriers that came up was that some school children are missing school because they can’t afford to get there.”

Anna says her children have benefited. “They don’t have to be left out of anything,” she said. “They’re getting their full experience and they really enjoy school now, they’re much happier where they are and they’re thriving.”


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