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Families paying hundreds per year on essential education, new research finds

Posted 11.05.23 by Alice Hinds

Parents and caregivers are spending hundreds of pounds every year to send their children to state primary and secondary school, according to new research from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).

Families in the UK need to find at least £39.01 per week, per state secondary school child, and £18.69 per primary-age child, totalling more than £1,750 and £860 every year, respectively, on costs including uniforms, learning materials, school trips, packed lunches and transport.

Over 14 years of education – excluding the costs of before and after-school childcare and items like laptops and printers – essential education bills can total up to £18,345.85 per child, which the charity believes shows more support is needed to ensure all children can learn equally.

The research, which was informed by interviews and focus groups, also found school costs vary dramatically depending on location, with low-income families in Scotland paying the least of any other country in the UK.

With the Best Start Grant, universal free school meals for children in P1 to P5, means-tested school clothing grants available nationally, and universal free bus travel for young people under 22 years old, the lowest earning parents in Scotland pay £16.46 for their children’s primary education per week, compared to £30.85 for parents in England, £22.53 for those in Wales, and £20.88 in Northern Ireland.

For some parents of secondary school children, the outlay in Scotland is around a quarter less than for families in all other nations.

However, in the report, CPAG also highlighted that 16% of children in poverty living in Scotland are not eligible for free school meals through national schemes. The Scottish government planned to introduce free school meals for all primary pupils by 2022, but the rollout for P6 and P7 has been delayed until 2024.

Kate Anstey, head of CPAG’s Cost of the School Day programme, which aims to reduce financial barriers that prevent pupils from fully participating in the school, said: “Parents are guilt-stricken when their kids are left out at school but when you can’t cover the electricity bill, how is a new PE kit affordable?

“Our research shows there’s a hefty and often hidden price tag for just the basic essentials needed for school. For struggling families, it can feel more like pay-as-you-go than universal education. It’s on each national government to intervene and ensure that every child has at the very least the essentials required to take part in school and learn. Without that intervention, the very idea of universal education and equal life chances for children is undermined.”

A red shopping basket full of bread, fruit and bottles, being held by a person wearing a white shirt.

News: New research explores the costs of a choice-led, nutritious family shop

Posted 18 January, 2023 by Nina Joynson

Research exploring what families would choose to eat if income was sufficient shows the inaccessibility of a healthy, choice-led food shop, with the politics of the school canteen adding to the cost.

Going shopping

Nourish Scotland worked with public health experts, academics, Scottish Government representatives and people with family experience to create shopping lists that reflect the realities and aspirations families in Scotland have for their food.

Starting research in 2020, four case study families were identified and community advisors collaborated to define an ideal weekly shop for each, considering lifestyle and nutrition.

Two distinct case study families were defined: large families of two adults and three children aged 7-15, and small families of a single mother and two children aged 2-5.

Cost of eating 

After the shopping lists were created, researchers monitored their costs quarterly.

In December 2022, the large families' weekly spend would average at £235.75, while small families would spend £108.90, in order to have what is considered a realistic and healthy diet.

The cost-of-living crisis added £106.81 to the large families' monthly cost, against what they would have paid in December 2021.

From this, researchers concluded that it would be difficult for any of the case study families to afford the shopping lists, showing that aspirations for what should be affordable is not matched by sufficient income.

Food stigma at school 

One of the primary questions on the shopping list relates to school lunches. The advisory groups recognised that school meals become a contentious issue as children grow older and their eating preferences change.

It was also recognised that eating environments also become more important and stigmatised, such as circumstances where children with packed lunches eat separately to those with school meals.

Arguments begin in primary school and mount to "tremendous pressure" in secondary school, where young people want to join their friends in eating out, to socialise and avoid stigmatisation.

Therefore, the advisors recommend any ideal family budget needs to accommodate for both packed lunches and out-of-school options.

Government support

While the ideal food shop is currently unaffordable to many households, the research reveals that policies such as universal school meals provision and the Scottish Child Payment can make a real difference.

Under December 2022 eligibility, the Scottish Child Payment would cover 46% of the small families' and 32% of the large families' ideal weekly shopping list.

Click here to learn more about the Our Right to Food project

Children sitting at a table at school and enjoy their packed lunches together

News: School meal debt wiped for Edinburgh families

Posted 30 August, 2022 by Jennifer Drummond

The City of Edinburgh Council has voted to clear school meal debts for families in the capital.

The debt, totalling approximately £64,000, will be cleared by the Council in a bid to help ease the financial burden on families during the ongoing cost of living crisis by using excess finances from last year’s budget.

The Council has also voted for a one-off £100 payment made directly to more than 8,000 families who are entitled to free school meals.

The cost is anticipated to be covered with £1.2m which remains unallocated from the 2021/22 budget. A further £128,000 is to be set aside to help alleviate the pressure on families for school meal payments in the coming year  - though this will be subject to audit.

SNP Group Leader, Councillor Adam McVey, whose colleague Marco Biagi lodged the motion calling on the Council to consider additional action to support Edinburgh citizens through the cost of living crisis, said:

“I’m grateful to colleagues across most parties for supporting the SNP motion by Cllr Marco Biagi to take forward action to help folk through the cost of living crisis.

“The council has now signed off payments of £100 for every child in receipt of free school meal vouchers that will be paid directly to people’s bank accounts.

“The council also agreed to clear family debts for school meals – helping to take another burden off hard-pressed families. This will all make a real difference for families struggling to make ends meet.”

Free school meals for all

In 2020, Deputy First Minister John Swinney announced an ambitious expansion programme which would see all primary school pupils in Scotland entitled to free school meals by August 2022.

Currently, pupils in P1-P5, as well as children from families in receipt of Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit are eligible for free school meals in Scotland. However, older pupils have been left waiting with the August 2022 commitment dropped from the latest budget plans.

Green plate with egg, tomatoes, cheese and bread

News: Accelerate free school meal provision, says STUC

Posted 22 April 2022, by Jennifer Drummond

As pupils return to the classroom after the Easter break, trade union leaders have called for school meals to be expanded to all pupils in both primary and secondary school.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has called for the Scottish Government to accelerate the rollout of free school meal provision in primary schools, after the original August 2022 target for universal provision was scrapped. Primary 6 and Primary 7 pupils will no longer receive free school meals on this date but instead have been told they need to wait until “later in the parliamentary term”.

The 'Food for Thought' campaign from the STUC Women's Committee considers the expansion as the minimum the Scottish Government can do to end pupil hunger and break the stigma around free school meals.

The STUC has also called for the programme to include pupils in secondary school settings.

Fiona Steele, STUC Women’s Committee Chair said:

“Children across Scotland will be returning to school this week at a fundamental disadvantage through entirely avoidable child hunger.

“We believe that hunger knows no age boundaries. If the Scottish Government is truly committed to reducing child poverty and enshrining the rights of the child into law – expanding universal free school meals is a critical component to make this a reality.”

A Scottish Government spokesman responded to the call highlighting the ongoing expansion programme, continuing targeted support for eligible families during the school holidays. They also highlighted that councils have the power to make discretionary offers of free school meals to families experiencing financial hardship.

The calls for accelerated expansion form a key part of the STUC’s local council elections manifesto.