Poverty in school: Practical tips for supporting families

Written by: Fabienne Crocket | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The cost of living crisis is hitting families hard. Fabienne Crocket from the UK Cost of the School Day project considers four areas where we might review our provision to ensure the costs of school are not adding to the burden

Families with children are being deeply impacted by the current cost increases –from energy to food, family budgets are being increasingly stretched.

Through the UK Cost of the School Day project, we have heard the perspectives of 1,900 parents and carers in 55 schools across England, Scotland and Wales.

Parents have told us they struggle with school costs and for many it is difficult to afford things like uniforms, stationery, trips, clubs, dress-up days, cake sales, discos, lunches, and transport.

The current cost of living crisis makes it especially hard. Parents report that they go to great lengths to make sure their child can take part in school activities. But when this is impossible it might mean children miss out on the full school experience and feel left out.

Schools cannot fix the root causes of poverty, but through thoughtful and pragmatic action, lots of schools are reducing costs and easing the pressure on families.

Identifying what is paid for in school, how money is talked about and how support is communicated are all very practical ways schools can make life easier for families who are struggling.

It is clear from our work that families really value the practical support offered by schools and this work can ensure that their children have an enjoyable experience of school.

Our new Cost of the School Day resource, Supporting families in times of financial hardship: A guide for schools, is for anyone in schools considering how best to support families who may be struggling financially. It includes the perspective of families we have heard from and some practical tips and ideas.

Here are some tips across four key areas – each prefaced with a comment from a parent illustrating the problems.

Cost of participation
“Schools assume that parents can afford these things. I juggle bills so my children are not made fun of.”

For schools looking at practical ways to reduce school costs while still retaining rich and varied opportunities for students, the following suggestions provide a starting point:

  • Promote dialogue within your staff team about the current challenges many families are facing and the role that school can play in ensuring families don’t have added costs. Encourage all staff to think about the costs that might be passed on to families when planning both curriculum and enrichment activities.
  • Calculate the current cost of your school year to set a benchmark for how much attending school and taking part costs. Identify which times of the year, subjects, year groups face the highest costs and then consider what can practically be done to reduce these costs.
  • Explore lower cost alternative enrichment activities: for example, one school decided to host a school sleepover on the school field rather than an off-site residential so that all children could take part. Another school decided to invite a theatre company in to school for a pantomime rather than visiting a theatre so that the cost to families was significantly reduced.

Payment processes
“Sometimes you get told about a trip and there are only a few days to pay for it which again can be stressful, especially if you have not been paid yet and are waiting to be paid.”

It is not just the amount of money requested that puts pressure on families but also how payments are handled and how much notice families get to make payments.

Parents told us that they find it difficult and stressful when there are unexpected costs, persistent chasing of contributions, and when they receive last-minute information about upcoming events and activities with a cost attached.

Dealing with money in school in this way is problematic for all parents, but for households on much tighter budgets processes around money and payments in school are even more important.

Schools can ease the impact that education costs have on family budgets by implementing the following actions around money collection:

  • Have a minimum notice period that families will receive for any request for money or requirement for resources regardless of the amount that is being asked for. Make sure all staff are aware of this.
  • Encourage every department, faculty or year group to set out all of their trips and activities at the start of the year to identify costs. This can then be shared with families, so they have lots of notice to plan for any related costs.
  • Set up payment plan options so that families can split payments into more manageable chunks over a longer period of time.
  • If a family does owe the school any money for trips, clubs or lunches, speak directly to parents and carers about any missing payments, so that students are not involved in any debt-resolution processes.

Communicating support
“I’m unaware of any support in place because I’ve never asked. To be honest, even if I needed it, I think I would be too shy and embarrassed, and would rather struggle or go without myself than seek help.”

We know that schools offer lots of support to families, from subsidised trips to pre-loved uniform provision, and discretionary hardship funds.

However, parents have told us they are often not aware of what help is out there or how to access it. It can be tricky asking for help and some families we spoke to said they were worried about being judged or didn’t want their child to be identified as living in a low-income household.

Some parents told us they do not see school as a place to talk about money and they do not want to ask for support on issues not directly linked to their child’s learning.

Being really clear about what support is available and talking about money in a matter-of-fact way can help make these conversations easier for families.

As a starting point, the below actions can help ensure families know what help is out there and how to access it:

  • Make sure that all letters, emails, and texts that include a request for money very clearly include details of support that might be available. This should make clear what parents should do if the cost will be a barrier, who they should speak to in school, and how they should contact them.
  • Reassure parents that you, as a school, are aware that families' circumstances change, and that lots of families can find themselves struggling to make ends meet. Make sure that your communications are clear that families will be treated with empathy and understanding.
  • Speak with all staff involved in talking about money at school, including office and admin staff, to make sure there is consistency and that everyone takes a supportive and empathetic approach.

Supporting all families
“The problem is you can be a working family with two incomes and still be struggling financially but not entitled to help and not feel able to discuss issues.”

Schools will not always know when families are struggling. Where possible, universalising provision helps make sure everyone who needs support can access it.

Poverty is not static and family incomes can fluctuate. Sometimes parents may appear to be managing but, behind closed doors, might be struggling. It is easy to accidentally overlook these families. As many school staff are aware, the data we usually use in schools does not always give the full picture – free school meals eligibility does not capture all families who are living below the poverty line or those who are struggling to get by.

Families facing poverty and hardship don’t look a certain way and trying to identify these children and parents poses the risk of stereotyping families. In order to remove stigma and increase access to support, schools can consider the following steps:

  • Don’t assume in advance which families might need help or support. Start from the premise that anyone can be living in poverty and that circumstances can change quickly.
  • Work in partnership with other local services and signpost to them regularly in your communications with all parents.
  • Consider the support that can be provided that will reach all families regardless of their Pupil Premium or FSM status, such as making uniforms affordable or making pre-loved uniform available.

Final thought

Schools play such a vital role in our communities and there are many amazing examples of schools taking action to ease pressures on families. Through continued reflection and by taking a pragmatic and sensitive approach, schools can continue to ensure that families are supported through difficult times.

  • Fabienne Crocket is a practitioner with the UK Cost of the School Day project, which is run by the Child Poverty Action Group.

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