When ‘free’ is too much

State education is free but for low-income families paying for
school trips, meals, books and uniforms causes hardship and can
stigmatise students, writes Kate Coxon.

A Barnardo’s report, published in July, has highlighted
the summer holiday misery experienced by low-income families who
are unable to afford a trip to the local swimming pool let alone
the seaside. Parents interviewed for Wish You Were
1 found that the summer holidays were one of
the most stressful periods of the year and worried that their
children felt stigmatised and excluded during the summer.

September should bring some respite for families on low incomes.
Free school meals resume and school-age children, at least, are
occupied. But going back to school brings fresh problems for
families in poverty: how to pay for the school clothes and
equipment that children need at the start of the school year. After
a difficult and expensive summer, finding money to clothe children
for school can be the last straw.

School clothing is not the only expense. A recent report from
the Child Poverty Action Group: The Costs of Education – A
Local Study
, carried out by the Oxford and District Branch of
the CPAG2 examines parental experiences of the costs of
items associated with school education. The study points out that
despite having a “free” school system in the UK, educational costs
are a key problem facing parents living on a low income. Some
families, particularly those headed by a lone parent, report
difficulties in paying for school clothes, trips and music lessons
and meeting other expenses.

In addition, the report highlights the fact that voluntary
charges for activities often don’t feel voluntary for
parents. It concludes: “For these families, charges, requests for
contributions towards school trips and activities, and school
fundraising efforts posed problems for the family budget. Parents
struggled with decisions about sending their children on school
trips since they were keen for their children not to miss out on
opportunities or feel excluded from their peers.”

Costs of kitting out a child for school can vary. Many schools
have replaced full uniforms with sweatshirts to keep costs down,
but there are other items: books, bags, PE kit. Children from
low-income families may be deterred from signing up for extra
activities – music lessons and sports activities for example – that
require special equipment.

In January 2001, Citizens Advice published a report Uniform
Failure,3 looking at the lack of help available to families with
the cost of school uniforms. A Citizens Advice survey last year
showed that the limited grants available from LEAs had been slashed

Thirty per cent of local education authorities provide no help
whatsoever with the cost of school uniforms, and as Citizens Advice
social policy officer Katie Lane points out, assistance is patchy
even among those authorities that do provide it. “There are huge
regional variations in availability, value and the frequency with
which grants are paid. Not having the proper uniforms can mean
young people are excluded from the social and academic life of
their school. Citizens Advice Bureaux report that not all schools
follow LEA guidance on uniform policies. We’d like to see the
government issue guidance to LEAs on grant schemes and monitor
their policies in this area.”

There is guidance from the government about charging for school
trips. Governors may not charge for most activities in school time,
but can charge for activities wholly or mainly outside school
hours, if these are optional extras, as well as board and lodging
on residential courses. But they are also allowed to invite parents
and others to make “voluntary” contributions.

These present problems, as one parent in the CPAG study
explained: “Parents just get a letter, permission slip and request
for money. It is hard to refuse a child as there is no apparent
‘nice’ alternative offered. It does not seem acceptable
for them not to go.”

Another felt that children would be left out of the trip if they
did not pay the voluntary charge: “A ‘voluntary
contribution’ means that if you don’t pay, your child
won’t go on the trip. So not very voluntary!”

Schools usually have hardship funds for trips but previous
research has shown that families rarely know about them. Those who
do are often unwilling to come forward and ask for, fearing that
their child will be singled out.

The stigma extends to free school meals, according to
CPAG’s director Martin Barnes. “We know from previous
research we’ve done that one in three children don’t
claim the free school meals they are entitled to, because of the
stigma associated with it. They don’t want their names ticked
off, they don’t want to be picked out and identified as the
poor kid in the class.”

Barnes points out that many children would rather not tell their
parents about a school trip or outing that needs to be paid for
because they know they will not be able to afford it. “The child
fears pressure and embarrassment if they can’t go and so they
often keep quiet about it and take a sickie on the day.”

The Barnardo’s report recommended placing a statutory duty
on local authorities to provide school uniform grants to families
on income support. CPAG would like to see benefit levels increased
to take into account the fact that schools tend to charge for trips
and outings. It also proposes widening the remit of the Social Fund
to include items associated with schooling. If the government is
serious about its free education system and wants to tackle child
poverty and social exclusion, it should address these issues

1 Barnardo’s, Wish
You Were Here
, July 2003

The Costs of
study by the Oxford and District Branch of the
Child Poverty Action Group is available from: CPAG, 94 White Lion
Street, London N1 9PF, 020 7837 7979,

Uniform Failure,
Citizens Advice, Jan 2001

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