"It takes all of us"- A whole school approach to reducing the costs of the school day

This blog first appeared on Glasgow Centre for Population Health website

School costs can have a big impact on children’s experience of school and can result in children missing out on opportunities and feeling left out, different and unhappy. School costs add up, from small regular costs like bus fares and school dinner money, to larger costs like buying school uniform and affording school trips.

I’m not angry at my mum because she’s just had a baby and has three kids but it’s pressure for the kids and pressure for the parents because my mum felt guilty that I couldn’t go. Why do we have costly trips then? It puts people under pressure and it makes people embarrassed and disappointed if they can’t go.” (Girl, P7)

These costs can have a big impact on children’s experience of school, making them feel that they don’t belong and creating barriers to children achieving their full potential. In a recent Fairer Scotland action plan the Scottish Government recognises the importance of addressing school costs as part of the work to address child poverty so that all children have the same opportunities in school.

In Glasgow, following the launch of the Cost of the School day report in October 2015, schools have been taking steps to minimise costs and tackle the stigma around poverty and, through delivering training and speaking to teachers we have found that many schools are using innovative partnerships to reduce the pressure on low-income families. Teaching staff alone cannot address the impact of poverty in school: parents, children, school staff and the wider community can all play a part in tackling stigma and addressing where costs put pressure on families.

Involving parents

Fundraising in schools helps to subsidise school trips, buy new items such as football kits or playground equipment and ensure that there is money for essential items like spare school uniforms, pens and pencils etc. However, from speaking to both young people and parents we know that fundraising can put pressure on low-income families.

Parents spoke about the pressure of having frequent fundraising events: non-uniform day may be just £1, but this can add up, particularly for families with several siblings. Frequent fundraising also made parents feel that they were constantly being asked for money from the school and the school’s parent council and this impacted on their relationship with the school making them more reluctant to engage.

Parental involvement is recognised as being a major positive influence in children’s attainment, parents need to have opportunities to be involved in the school beyond fundraising, so that the school is able to use the skills, ideas and experiences that parents have. In Merrylee Primary one parent has taken over doing the school photos (replacing a company that had high charges), using her skills in photography to take class photos and getting them developed at a local supermarket. This has brought the cost of school photos down and gives parents an opportunity to support the school with their talents rather than just their money.

Maximising family incomes

In 2013/14 it was estimated that 50,000 potential claimants missed out on benefits they were entitled to, including Child Benefit, Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits in Scotland. Supporting families to claim the support that they are entitled to could be a huge help in reducing the financial pressure they experience and schools can play a valuable role in helping parents address these challenges.

Annette Street Primary has a large population of families from the EU, many of whom were eligible for benefits but were not claiming (which also meant that they could not access other support like Free School Meals and school clothing grants). To try and address this, the school built links with Govanhill Housing Association’s welfare rights service, welfare rights staff came along to information mornings for parents and held drop-in meetings in the school to support families to apply for benefits, with interpreters present to help with language difficulties.

Now all new families are given information about accessing support and are signposted to the welfare rights drop-ins. This has helped to increase the number of children who can access FSMs as well as ensuring that families are accessing the supports that they are entitled to.

Tackling poverty-related stigma in classroom

When speaking to children in the course of the Cost of the School day project, children spoke of feeling anxious, embarrassed or ashamed. Children spoke about feeling worried that they would be teased for their clothes or belongings, or because they were unable to afford to take part in activities like school trips. The stigma that surrounds poverty has an impact on children’s sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction, however, this can be challenged by addressing it in the classroom and getting children to engage with the issues of school costs.

“Pupils need to be more open minded. What we were saying about Ross (boy used in CoSD case study) maybe feeling judged – if people were more open minded then maybe that wouldn't happen. Maybe if we were taught lessons about people who have less money... You need to be brought up in an environment where you're open to people who are different. If you're brought up to be open to talking about these things then you'll be a better adult and then our generation will be better.” (Girl, Primary 7)

How to explore issues around poverty is one of the areas that we look at with teachers in the Cost of the School Day professional development – encouraging teachers to think of creative ways of exploring these themes with young people. One of the suggestions has been to use “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl to explore what it is like to come from a low-income family, getting children to reflect on the challenges that Charlie (who comes from a very poor family) faces, imagine what it would be like for Charlie in their school and what the school could do to make sure that Charlie got the best help possible.

Tackling the costs around the school day is central to closing the attainment gap, so that all children have equal access to all the opportunities that school provides and it needs to involve the whole community. Tapping into parents’ skills, building links with local organisations and engaging children in the process of tackling stigma can all play a valuable role in “poverty proofing” the school day.

To read more about The Cost of the School Day research click here

CPAG in Scotland and Glasgow Centre for Population Health have developed a briefing paper on "Learning from the Cost of the School Day Project"- you can read it here