The painful cost of a free education

Failure to acknowledge the true cost of education heaps pressure on parents already feeling the strain. But some are now taking matters into their own hands

Felicity Hannah
Monday 29 August 2016 14:20
Parents are increasingly struggling to cover the true cost of a ‘free’ education
Parents are increasingly struggling to cover the true cost of a ‘free’ education

It’s one of the cornerstones of British life and taxpayers invest billions each year in educating the next generation for free. But with the shops stuffed with ‘back to school’ offers, uniforms, stationery and sports equipment, it’s increasingly clear that parents are also paying a steep price for their families’ education. For some households, the annual cost is more than an annoying but anticipated bill, it’s a seasonal strain on their finances. For some families it can mean real financial hardship.

Research from Nationwide has revealed the average cost of sending a child back to school after the summer break is a hefty £186. Clothing and footwear are the main expenses, with uniforms, school shoes, jackets and sportswear adding up to more than £100 combined.

With many schools enforcing uniform rules with threats of suspension or even expulsion, having the right uniform is essential, yet many local councils no longer provide any financial support to struggling parents. Instead parents are directed to their schools for advice and help with costs, but what help is available can vary.

In response to this, a movement has sprung up in Scotland: the Back to School Bank. Outlets are opening across the UK, created to provide children from lower-income homes with a brand new uniform and other essentials.

Deborah Shepherd is one of the founding volunteers of the network, which sprang up in June last year. Families are referred to the banks via local services and the children who benefit are never told they’re receiving donations.

“Everyone I meet remembers ‘that kid’ in school,” she explains. “I bet you do too. It was the kid that came in with a dirty uniform, or kit that was faded and did not fit. The one that never had a pencil case and who ‘forgot’ to bring lunch or trip money in... It's long past time that stopped. If uniform is required [then] kids should have it regardless of their family or financial circumstances. They should not be paying for their family’s poverty with their education. The motivation for this scheme is really as simple as that.

“Most of the banks deal in new items only, with the intention being to give these kids a brand new uniform, just like their peers get, to ensure when they walk in those doors they're not marked out by being the poor kids without a decent uniform. They walk in with their shiny new clothes and kit with dignity, a feeling of equality and confidence. We know anecdotally from teachers and referrers that it makes a huge difference to their feelings about going to school for the kids they deal with.”

Having the right kit or not can have a huge impact on the children but parents who can’t access or qualify for help face an emotional strain as well.

The emotional cost

Two years ago Kimberly and her husband broke up, leaving her struggling to buy everything she needed for their two children, then aged 10 and 11, to return to school.

“I was worried because I hate having financial problems,” she says. “But also I felt I was failing my children by not being able to get what they needed. I had just become a single mum so was running a household on one wage.”

In the end, the whole family had to go without in order to pay for the uniforms and other school kit. “I had to borrow money and, worse, I had to go without buying new tyres for my car, which meant I couldn’t use it for a few weeks. I also cancelled a holiday.” It was a difficult time for them all and Kimberly says their circumstances changed so quickly that budgeting in advance was simply not possible.

Keeping the cost down

If you don’t qualify for help with back to school costs, or there’s nothing available in your area then there are still ways to keep the bill down.

James Jones, head of consumer affairs at Experian, says: “Shopping around can make a real difference to the amount of cash parents are spending on these back to school necessities.

“Consider moving away from well-known brands to supermarkets that offer competitive prices on school supplies. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the quality of the items you’re buying though, whilst a good deal is ideal, durability is also key to ensure you don’t have to pay for another pair of school shoes during the Christmas holidays.

“If you didn’t manage it this year, a great tip for the future is to spread the costs of the back to school shop. If you’re buying from the supermarket, put a couple of items in the shopping basket alongside your weekly shop in the month leading up to the start of the school year to avoid parting with a lump sum of money in one go.”

For more information on accessing help from the Back to School Bank or setting up a branch in your area, visit the Facebook page:

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