The Hidden Costs of School

Pricing Out The Poorest

Many of us have felt the squeeze on our finances in recent years. As the cost of living rises faster than salaries, homes across the country have seen their money disappear more quickly. However, a recent study by the Children’s Commission on Poverty (2014) has put the focus on previously overlooked expenses demanded by state education.

The report, by young commissioners aged 10 to 19, appointed by the Children’s Society, highlighted that the cost of non-core items such as school uniforms, computers, study materials and trips, can add up to an additional £800 per child each year, and this risked pricing some of the poorest students out of subjects. The study noted that these extra costs can lead to disadvantaged students feeling excluded and stigmatised, simply because they are unable to afford the same things as their peers. Certain subjects were seen as particularly expensive, such as art and technology, with one student noting that the costs continued to mount up over time as new equipment such as sketchbooks needed replacing. Others admitted they lacked essential equipment such as home computers and internet access, which are increasingly required for homework. Even more of a concern was the reported 25 per cent of families who said they had needed to borrow money in order to afford the cost of school for their child.

This lack of resources has an impact on the student’s ability to concentrate and engage in learning. Children are intensely aware of their parent’s difficulty with the costs of school. In many cases this led to embarrassment for the child, with more the a quarter of children in such situations reporting that they had experienced bullying as a direct result. More than half of children had avoided asking their family for school related items because they knew they couldn’t afford it. Young people are already going through an awkward and self-conscious stage in their life and long to fit in. Having the wrong school uniform or one that is obviously worn out can make them feel uncomfortable and more anxious. The study also noted the impact on concentration and behaviour if a child is unable to afford a healthy, nutritious meal at least once a day. One in five students had missed out on a school meal due to not having enough money. There is some help for those families who meet free school meal requirements, yet some schools continue to deliver these in a way that singles out children in poverty, leading to stigma. As one respondent noted, it is always obvious when another student is having free school meals, because they have to hold up a card and have it inspected.

A Lack of Understanding

There is an idea that education should be freely accessible by all, but this does not appear to be the case for many. Out of nearly 2,000 parents surveyed for the study, over half said they had been forced to cut back on items such as clothing, food or heating in order to meet the school costs. This figure increased to 90% for those families who described themselves as ‘not well off at all’. The 1996 Education Act states that schools should not charge for any items needed for the delivery of the National Curriculum, but it is clear that many families are finding they are expected to cover the cost of key materials (technology being a big expense). Some students reported that teachers had not always been sympathetic to their difficulties, with one child explaining that they had received detention when a website prescribed for homework had not worked on their home computer.

The authors of the study have urged schools to ‘poverty proof’ subjects by limiting the costs of trips and necessary course materials. For example, uniforms should not be elaborate (at present, some specialist suppliers can charge up to £500) and instead basic supermarket alternatives costing on average £40 should be used in their place. There needs to be a greater appreciation of how the additional costs can add up to an overwhelming amount for some of the less well off families. They research also suggests a cashless system, such as swipe cards, to be implemented for school meals in order to remove the stigma amongst poorer children. They also recommend that students be allowed to carry over any unspent money at the end of each day, as those using cash would be able to. Those on free school meals should not be penalised and should have the same flexibility in making choices as their peers. There also needs to be clear information available in regards to the different support that schools offer parents to help pay for items such as textbooks or subject materials. This communication should be directly to the parents and not through the children.

Poverty Should Stop At The School Gates

If the above recommendations were put into practice, then it would go a long way to ensuring that all children were given the same opportunities in school, regardless of who they are or what they have. This would remove the added trauma and stress that less well off students face. There is a strong belief that poverty should stop at the school gates, and equality in education is an important step to making sure that the next generation of children have the means to escape the disadvantaged backgrounds that they may have come from.


  • Department for Education (2008). Charging for school activities. London.
  • The Children’s Commission on Poverty (2014). At what cost? Exposing the impact of poverty on school life. Available at: [Accessed 1st November 2014].

Photo: Steven Depolo

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