'There is nothing for free' – schools urged to audit cost of events, fun activities, and trips

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Hidden costs: Even if events or activities are free-of-charge, there can often be hidden costs that prevent pupils from taking part fully (image: Adobe Stock)

Research has revealed just how little access disadvantaged children actually have to fully enjoying school events such as fairs, fundraising activities, and non-uniform days. Pete Henshaw takes a look

There is little awareness of what it's like to live on a very tight income." Parent

Schools are being asked to consider the financial impact of fun events and special occasions on children living in poverty.

A new study reveals just how little access disadvantaged children actually have to fully enjoying school events such as fairs, book sales, fundraising activities, dress-up or non-uniform days, proms, residential trips, and leavers’ celebrations.

Published by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Children North East, the report, entitled The cost of having fun at school, is based on research involving more than 8,000 pupils in 32 schools across England, Scotland and Wales.

Not only are children in poverty unable to access many events due to the cost, but they also suffer from stigma and embarrassment in front of their peers. And while some events are free to attend, pupils are still required to pay to fully participate, such as in book sales or school fairs.

The report urges schools and parent associations to audit their annual programme of activities, including engaging with parents and carers, to ensure that all pupils can take part and to avoid too many events running at the same time.

“Inclusion” and “affordability” are the priority, the charities say, and the report highlights many examples of good practice from “poverty-aware schools”, including practices such as making donations anonymous, putting on (completely) free events, and limiting dress-up days.

The report adds: “Ensure that inclusion and affordability are key considerations when planning fun activities in school. Adopt whole-school approaches instead of targeted support to children from low-income families. For example, instead of offering spare Christmas jumpers or dressing up costumes to some children, consider how dressing up costs can be reduced for all families – some schools provide t-shirts for everyone to decorate.”

Other comments from parents in the report include:

  • "I feel quite stressed and anxious with the constant letters we have from school in the build-up to Christmas."
  • "It's the Christmas party, Christmas concert costumes, tickets for Christmas concerts, Christmas fete, raffles, teachers' presents, donations to hampers, Christmas jumper day the list goes on!"
  • "They put up a message on Facebook page suggesting kids wear Christmas clothes for the play and although they stated we shouldn't go out and buy how can I tell my children I can't afford it?"
  • "Sometimes it feels like quite a lot of money is being asked for. I can't do it if it's lots of times. We have to pay for more important things first."

The charities also spoke to pupils about the impact of not being able to fully access many events:

  • "There is nothing for free. If you can't pay for special occasions, you can't go." (Pupil, aged six)
  • "Some people cried because they didn't get one. They just sat there looking at the cakes." (Pupil, aged 10)
  • "They talk behind your back (about what you wear) and stand staring at you." (Pupil, aged 12)
  • "Some people are buying accessories, rubbers, posters, bookmarks, rulers and some people can't buy anything (at the book fair). They can read a book but they can't keep it." (Pupil, aged 11)
  • "School don't think how much (prom) costs. It could be what someone earns in a week." (Pupil, aged 16)

Kate Anstey, UK Cost of the School Day Lead at CPAG, said: "Fun events and special occasions are often children's favourite part of the school year. But our research shows that for too many pupils, these activities are actually a source of anxiety and make them feel left out because they don't have enough money to take part.

“It's time we worked together to remove the cost barriers in school so that all pupils are able to join in the fun."

Luke Bramhall, head of youth services and poverty proofing at Children North East, added: “Many of these young people have told us of the financial challenges that these events can bring, and the stigma associated, with not being able to take part as a result. This report can help schools to think about different ways of marking these occasions, so that all children are able to participate in these experiences.”

The Cost of the School Day project run by CPAG aims to reduce the financial barriers that prevent pupils from fully participating in the school day.

Poverty Proofing the School Day is a similar project run by Children North East which offers a toolkit to poverty-proof the school day, to reduce stigma and remove barriers to learning.


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