Money Talk: Help with return to school costs

Children eating school dinners School costs can be a considerable burden at the start of the new school year

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School uniform, school shoes, sports kit, stationary, dictionaries, notebooks, transport - the necessities for the new school year put a strain on most parents' wallets.

But they can create more serious problems for those on low incomes.

Research from Family Action suggests the combined back-to-school costs per pupil in autumn 2011 are £113 for primary school pupils and £191 for those attending secondary school.

These figures obviously double, triple or more, depending upon how many children a family has.

The research claimed that for some families, back-to-school costs can represent 40% of their monthly income.

Cutbacks

As Family and Parenting Institute research has shown, even without the added financial hit of the new school year, many UK parents are struggling financially.

They have seen a painful package of cuts to entitlements which helped families live, work and get their children educated.

These included the end of universal Child Benefit, the scaling back of tax credits, the scrapping of the Child Trust Fund, the Health in Pregnancy Grant and the Education Maintenance Allowance.

This is in addition to the increased threat of unemployment, and finances taking a battering from surging inflation on essentials such as food and fuel.

So where can struggling parents find help meeting back-to-school costs?

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The UK still has a vibrant and strong family charity sector”

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Firstly, low-income families should turn to their child's school for help.

Provisions on offer vary, and are usually arranged by parent-teacher associations (PTAs) and governors.

The School Admissions Code of 2010 states that "all schools which have a uniform policy should have arrangements in place to ensure that no family feels unable to apply for admission on account of high uniform costs".

Secondly, low-income parents can potentially apply to local charities and other trust funds for help.

Charities

The UK still has a vibrant and strong family charity sector, despite the ravaging effects of the current economic climate.

Dr Katherine Rake School costs, and the financial help available, vary hugely says Dr Katherine Rake

For example, children in Bedford who receive free school meals and are progressing from middle to upper school can apply for a £50 uniform grant from the Bedford Charity.

Charities with a wider reach include Family Action, which works in more than 130 schools in England providing help with uniform and other back-to-school costs.

Another is Family Fund, which helps low-income families who face the additional financial strain of caring for a disabled child.

Parents should visit their local Citizen's Advice Bureau to find out what exists in their area.

Thirdly, some low-income families can apply to their local council for financial assistance.

Local authorities

Councils are obliged to provide free bus transport to primary and secondary pupils attending their nearest suitable school.

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Many other UK councils offer no such assistance”

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That applies if the pupils live further away than statutory walking distances - two miles for pupils under eight and three miles for those aged eight or more.

Councils must also provide free lunches in schools for the children of parents on Income Support, Job Seekers' Allowance or certain other benefits.

Some local authorities - only some - also help with uniform costs.

For example, Tameside Council in Greater Manchester offers clothing grants to families on certain benefits of £25 per year for primary school children, and £40 per year for secondary school children.

The grants are issued as a book of vouchers that can be used at certain local shops.

Shrinking help

Some authorities, such as Enfield council in North London, do not offer year-on-year assistance, but give a grant for the first year of primary school and the first year of secondary school.

In Northern Ireland, parents on income support and other benefits can receive a uniform grant for their children from the education and library boards.

But many other UK councils offer no such assistance.

For example, Surrey County Council only recommends to parents that they contact the school to see if it can help with second-hand uniforms.

Evidence shows that many local authorities have ended previous financial support for uniforms.

Even before the financial crisis, Citizens Advice found in 2007 that 57% of local authorities did not offer any uniform grant.

Low-income parents face, to use the cliche, a postcode lottery when facing school costs, and even the limited help that is available is shrinking.

Again, they should visit the CAB to find out more.

Parents with young children preparing to start primary school can also ask at their local Sure Start centre.

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