Child poverty: The hidden costs of school spelt out

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Expensive trips, costly music and arts classes, stigma about clothes and mobile phones, barriers to school food – a report has laid bare how poverty is impeding children’s access to education.

The research involves 4,600 pupils, 840 parents/carers and 420 members of school staff and focuses on the hidden costs of schooling in England.

The Cost of the School Day in England: Pupils’ perspectives has been published by Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East and is based on the charities’ Cost of the School Day project.

Government figures from 2021 show that there were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2019/20 – which is 31% of children. And 75% of these children are in a household where at least one person works.

The research involved primary and secondary schools in London and the Midlands, and it identifies and breaks-down some of the key barriers to education for those in poverty. Findings include:

  • Families are often expected to own learning resources for use at home and at school, such as textbooks and IT equipment.
  • Pupils are financially excluded from full participation in subjects and activities, such as PE, music, swimming, and art.
  • The costs associated with resources and equipment can restrict pupils' subject choices in secondary school (food technology and art, for example, can be expensive to take).
  • Some special events like trips, fundraising activities, and celebrations can be out of reach for children in poverty, often causing “great anxiety and financial and social pressure”.
  • Children in poverty and on free school meals often do not have the same food options as their peers at lunch-times. Many more children miss out on FSM altogether due to “restrictive eligibility criteria”.

Furthermore, the report warns: “Day-to-day practices in schools often unintentionally draw attention to family incomes and make children feel embarrassed and different. These include expensive uniform policies, non-uniform days and requests from schools to bring in material possessions like pencil cases.”

It also warns that families are borrowing money to pay for school activities like school trips, “not wanting children to lose out on these valuable learning opportunities”.

The report breaks down in detail the key barriers across core areas of school life, including the curriculum, resources, extra-curricular work, school food, and others.

School food

The report warns that many children in poverty simply are not eligible under current criteria. Those who are eligible face other barriers, such as losing their FSM allowance should it go unspent and not being able to spend it at breakfast or break-times.

For those families in poverty but not on FSM, the way schools sometimes try to resolve debt on school meal accounts – often involving the children – is inappropriate.

Other barriers include many children in poverty being forced to have packed lunches as they cannot afford hot meals. Some schools even make packed lunch pupils sit apart from those on hot meals, unintentionally isolating disadvantaged pupils from their friends.

This echoes previous research showing that across the UK, a third of school-aged children living in poverty – roughly one million young people – do not get free school meals due to restrictive eligibility criteria and barriers to FSM take-up (Patrick et al, 2021; Headteacher Update, 2021).


The report outlines the subjects and activities where costs can prohibit pupil involvement. It states: “Children and families have told us that in schools in England, those experiencing poverty are financially excluded from full participation in a wide range of school subjects and activities. This is because participation requires additional equipment and resources to be provided from home, and these can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to afford for low-income families.”

For example, in PE pupils are often told to sit out if they are missing pieces of kit, especially swimming lessons. The report says PE is “one of the most ‘inegalitarian subjects’ at GCSE”.

Other areas which are difficult to access for those in poverty include musical instrument tuition and art, where options are limited due to the cost of some materials. Food technology is another area where families are often asked to buy ingredients.

And there is a general expectation that families will fund curriculum resources such as stationery, calculators, revision guides and textbooks: “Without these resources, children’s potential to learn is hindered and in some instances, they face sanctions at school. Even without taking part in any ‘optional’ extras, attending school and accessing learning is not cost-free.”

Homework is also becoming a problem for those on the wrong side of the digital divide, as increasingly pupils are required to complete and submit homework online.

School trips and visits

The report underlines that “these opportunities remain unaffordable and out of reach” for disadvantaged pupils.

It states: “Our discussions with children provide evidence of families borrowing money to avoid their children missing out on experiences at school, or children being unable to go on school trips because of the cost.

“Missing out on school trips not only means that children are missing opportunities for fun with their peers, but also that they are being excluded from valuable learning opportunities outside of the classroom.

“The majority of visits and trips outside of school are curriculum-linked, and support and enhance learning in the classroom. When children cannot take up trip opportunities, it affects their engagement with the curriculum and is another way that their educational experience is different from that of their peers.”

Uncomfortably, the report also highlights how families are being pressurised into making “voluntary” payments for trips and visits. Families cannot be charged for educational activities and trips that are part of the national curriculum or are needed to complete an exam, but voluntary contributions are allowed.

However, the report warns: “Children and families have said that, in reality, many of these requests for money do not feel voluntary, with frequent reminders and prompts being sent until the payment is made.”

Worse still, this pressure is also being placed onto children via “reminders” in the classroom, in front of their peers.

The short notice period for trips or visits is also a barrier, as low-income families often need time to organise the funds required. And trips or visits with limited places – often offered on a first-come, first-served basis – benefit richer families who have money readily available to pay quickly.

School uniform

The report warns: “In some schools, unnecessarily costly uniform policies conversely add to the pressures and stigma that families, children, and young people face.

“Rather than alleviating stress, unaffordable uniform requirements can pose a barrier to learning for students who sometimes receive sanctions and miss time in lessons for incorrect uniform.”

New statutory school uniform guidance, much of which must be adhered to by September this year, states that schools must keep branded uniform items “to a minimum”, limiting their use to “low-cost or long-lasting items”.

Recommendations for schools and Westminster

The report asks schools to redouble their efforts to “plan all teaching, events and activities with affordability and accessibility in mind”, including removing or minimising charging for school-related activities.

Part of this work should include a review of current school costs to establish the “cost of full participation in school life”. The report adds: “Monitor participation in all parts of school life to identify children who may be missing out on opportunities. Use available data to understand patterns in children’s uptake of opportunities.”

The report adds: “Provide meaningful opportunities for pupils and families to give feedback on their experience of school with a focus on school costs.”

It also advises: “Consider how to spread out costs over the course of a school year so that requests for contributions and payments are not concentrated for families.” CPAG has produced a Cost of the School Day Calendar resource to help schools with this work.

At a national level, the report urges ministers to recognise the impact that school-related costs have on children’s ability to learn. It wants to see better funding for schools in order to remove all “curriculum-related costs” as well as a move to universal free school meals for school-aged children in England. It also asks for funding for local authorities to establish grants to help families with costs such as school clothing or subsidies for trips.

The issue of child poverty and the role of schools – including how we can break down barriers to FSM up-take – was discussed during a recent episode of the SecEd Podcast (2021) from Headteacher Update's sister magazine. One of the guests in that episode, Kate Anstey, is the cost of the school day lead at CPAG.

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