May 31, 2023

The minimum cost of education: What does going to school really cost families?

By Georgina Burt, Development Manager (Cost of the School Day) at Child Poverty Action Group

For the last three years through the UK Cost of the School Day project, Child Poverty Action Group has been talking to and listening to children and families to understand how poverty effects children’s time at school.

What we’ve heard time and time again is that despite the free state education system, going to school in England involves a lot of hidden costs.

For the first time, we have worked in partnership with the Centre for Research and Social Policy at Loughborough University to calculate what going to school in England is really costing families. Based on the Minimum Income Standard, this research draws out what parents and carers with school-aged children think are the essentials needed to send a child to school in the UK – and the costs associated with these items.

The research showed that school uniform – including P.E. kit and bags, transport to and from school, packed lunches and learning resources such as calculators and revision guides are some of the most costly items that families are required to pay for. Parents and carers in focus groups also agreed that a minimum education includes some fun and social school experiences such as going on a trip, attending a prom or taking part in a non-uniform day.

Taking the list of essential items needed, this research has shown that the minimum cost of sending a child to primary school is £864.87 a year, or £18.69 a week, and £1,755.97 a year, or £39.01 a week for a secondary aged child. This means the total cost of meeting a child’s minimum educational needs across all 14 years of school is £18,345.85.

It is important to note that these figures are the minimum costs associated with going to school, detailing only those items that focus groups agreed were necessary. In reality, for children to take part in all that going to school offers the real cost families face can be much higher.

For families experiencing poverty and hardship, these costs are putting households under additional financial pressure. In instances where families are unable to meet these costs children miss out on key parts of the school day, stand out from their peers and find it harder to learn and achieve at school.

We know that lots of schools across England are already poverty-aware and are taking practical steps to support families and bring down school costs. However, it’s clear that at a time of rising costs and stretched household budgets families need more support.

Together, we need to do more to acknowledge the costs families face in relation to their child’s education and explore what more can be done to ensure that all pupils are able to make the most of their time at school. For schools who are interested in taking action we’ve developed lots of practical toolkits and ideas.

We do also recognise that schools can’t solve this alone, and many are already doing all that they can within the constraints of their budgets and staff capacity to support families.

Alongside the minimum costs, this research also highlights that where you live in the UK makes a difference when it comes to the cost of education.

Families in Scotland and Wales who are eligible for support face lower education costs than equivalent families in England, with greater support available to them through uniform grants, support with curriculum costs and a more generous approach to free schools.

In what is supposed to be a universal childhood experience, this research shows that far more support is needed so all children have the essentials required to take part in school and learn. We are calling on the UK government to lower costs families face by providing free school meals to all children, introducing nationally available uniform grants and providing free bus travel for all children.

The full report is available here: The minimum cost of education.

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