“To school you have to bring a pencil case, planner, calculator, pen, sharpener, ruler, rubber, highlighter,” a secondary school pupil said. “If you don’t have something the teacher gives you a warning or a detention.”
School costs are creating “worry and anxiety” for children as well as impacting family budgets, the experts said, to the extent that some pupils will avoid taking home letters about chargeable trips, clubs and musical lessons to prevent adding to parents’ mental load. Others warned too little notice was given for activities which required payment and were often operated on a first-come-first-served basis.
This means thousands of pupils are missing out on fun and learning at school as well as chances to bond with peers, the report said. They are particularly likely to miss out on learning in subjects like PE, art and design and music, which require children to provide or pay for kit and materials.
Researchers also heard from 840 parents and carers, who reported borrowing money to pay for children’s school costs to prevent them feeling embarrassed or missing out on the experiences their peers had.
The report shines a light on “how some school activities can unintentionally impact pupils from low-income families,” said Leigh Elliot, chief executive of Children North East, “making it harder for them to learn, achieve and be happy at school”.
Many children are going hungry or experiencing stress around breaks and lunch times because the qualifying criteria for free school meals are too narrow, the experts said. Those who do qualify face limited choices in school canteens or till systems which publicly show their free school meals eligibility, increasing stigma, according to the report.
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The solutions-focused study pointed to Lyng Hall School in Coventry which has developed a number of policies to cut food-related pressures for disadvantaged pupils.
These include letting pupils receiving free school meals to use their allowance at any time of day, not just lunch time, and any unspent credit rolls over into the next day. The school also provides free food for families at open evenings and parents’ evenings as well as free breakfasts for any children attending before-school clubs.
Campaigners called on the UK government and Department for Education (DfE) to “recognise the impact” school costs and soaring poverty are having on the fundamental education of children across England.
This must mean reforms to school funding to allow them to offer a “truly free and inclusive education”, they added, as well as extra cash for councils to give families grants for trips and school uniforms.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We continue to deliver year on year, real terms per pupil increases to school funding. In 2022-23 core schools funding will increase by £4bn compared to 2021-22 – a 5% boost in real terms per pupil.
“We are also supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils through Pupil Premium funding, which is increasing to more than £2.6bn in 2022-23 and is the highest in cash terms since this funding began. It is for schools to decide where to spend their funding in order to best support their pupils.”