State schools are free, right? Not any more, apparently. A study published in October 2014 by the Children’s Commission on Poverty showed that, on average, parents of state school pupils face annual bills of £800 per child. This pays for basics such as school meals, equipment, trips and school uniform.
Uniform is the worst offender. Department for Education guidance states that uniform should not be so expensive as to make pupils or families feel they cannot choose a particular school. Yet the research found that some schools were insisting on uniform priced at more than £500. Costs ranged from that peak to as little as £34 per pupil, with an average price of £108 for primary school uniforms and £126 for secondary school uniforms. Many schools now demand school badges or logos to be embroidered onto uniforms – not just blazers, but other clothes and sports kits – raising prices unnecessarily high.
The inquiry, supported by the Children’s Society and led by a panel of 16 children, found that more than 95% of parents on low incomes reported difficulties meeting school-related costs. Where financial assistance was available towards buying uniforms, this often did not cover the full cost of the clothing, and an estimated one in five low-income families received no assistance at all. When there are perfectly reasonable uniform items available from supermarkets, one cannot but wonder if these high costs are another way of covert selection by some schools, pushing out anyone from a poorer background?
Meanwhile, Parents surveyed spent £400 a year on average on school meals, although many pupils from low-income families do not qualify for free school meals because their parents were working. The Commission believes there are some 540,000 children living in poverty who fall into this trap. The research found that some children missed lunches because they did not have enough money to pay for them.
Purchasing books, stationery and equipment cost parents an average of £60 a child, and a third of the poorer children in the survey felt they suffered academically because they could not afford these items. A third also said they had been priced out of taking courses such as art, music and PE because they couldn’t afford the cost of materials. Others believed they had fallen behind at school because they could not afford a computer or internet access.
At the other end of the scale, research by the teachers’ union, the NASUWT, found in 2012 that over a quarter of parents paid money into ‘school funds’, being ‘pushed’ into signing direct debits for voluntary contributions of between £1,000 and £3,000 each year. Effectively a supplementary charge on their children’s schooling.
Of course, these reports highlight the worst of practice. Schools minister David Laws says: ‘A recent Ofsted report showed that the achievement gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is closing.’ He puts this down to good use of the £2.5 billion put into ‘pupil premiums’ by the government, which he believes are being well used to support students from poorer backgrounds.
And many schools have very supportive policies, recycling uniforms and selecting uniform sources that don’t cost the earth, and providing help with equipment. Some schools even offer free laptops for all, while others provide access to computers outside lesson times. Parent-teacher groups actively fundraise, providing money to ensure that every child can go on school trips, whatever their parents’ earning capacity.
But when you are making your top choice of local school, it pays to ask questions about the school’s policy on trips, uniform or equipment – and ‘voluntary’ fundraising – because you may find it is not as ‘free’ as state education is meant to be. And if you feel your school’s policy is wrong, take it up with the governors.