For many pupils, families and school staff, excitement has been building for the start of the new school year. However, for some families experiencing poverty, this can be a time of anxiety. A time of increased costs as uniforms, PE kits, travel cards and stationery are needed. But there are some straightforward steps that schools can take to ensure that all families and children get off to a great start.
1. Understand the wider financial challenges families face
This year, September marks the beginning of a difficult few months for families, as the end of furlough and the looming cut to universal credit dovetail with a raise in the energy price cap, increasing bills for many. Any one of these changes would be difficult, but combined these will make things much tougher for many families already struggling to keep their heads above water. Schools can give families regular reminders about any support they or the local community can provide with school related costs. Some schools have a named member of staff who advises families on financial matters; other schools have set up anonymised online forms or email addresses that families can use to share any concerns or request support with school costs.
2. Consider the frequency and timing of monetary requests to parents
The start of term typically involves the (re)establishment of extra-curricular clubs and sport teams. For low-income families, the arrival of letters and emails about these opportunities serve as a reminder that there are parts of the school day that their children are unintentionally excluded from because of money. Schools can be mindful of how frequently money is requested, and coordinate so letters are staggered and aren’t all added to book bags and inboxes within days of each other. At the beginning of term, schools can also share a calendar of all events and activities that will require financial contributions over the coming year. This can help families factor these costs into their budgets in advance.
3. Promote and incentivise free school meal registration
Importantly, families should be encouraged to re-check their eligibility for free school meals. Some schools have incentivised this by offering to enter families into a raffle to win prizes if they complete the free school meal form, or by providing a free school book bag, jumper or PE kit to those who complete it. Other schools have asked parents to provide their national insurance numbers so that this can be checked automatically. To simplify the process for parents, some schools add a field for national insurance numbers to pre-existing forms like enrolment forms. These are great ways of ensuring that children benefit from this additional support, and that schools have an accurate record of all children who are eligible for pupil premium funding.
4. Make school trip costs more manageable
School trips throughout the school year can also place a financial strain on families. Reviewing the affordability of trips at the start of the year can help to ensure pupils in families without much money are able to enjoy the same experiences as their peers. Where there is a cost, families have appreciated schools that have set up savings schemes to help. Some schools ask parents to make a small monthly donation to the cost of trips, which allows parents to spread it out over the course of the year, while other schools subsidise or cover the cost of trips for those families in need in of support.
5. Be mindful of children’s experiences over the holidays
Finally, schools can remind all staff that children are likely to have had very differing experiences over the summer holidays. Back-to-school activities such as writing about what pupils did in the holidays can draw attention to financial differences between children. In whole class discussions and activities, teachers can encourage children to focus on the year ahead. Questions such as ‘What are you most looking forward to about this school year?’ are much more inclusive than ‘What did you do over the summer?’ These small changes make a big difference to children experiencing poverty.
Reflecting on the ways that poverty impacts children’s experience of school has never been more important. Many of the steps that schools can take are small tweaks that can have an extremely positive impact on the cost of the school day and on children’s experiences of it. Following the disruptions of the last two years, it’s more important than ever that schools ensure all children and young people can take part and be happy at school.