“Education is free but a lot of school things are not”. This statement from a Member of the Children’s Parliament in Scotland sums up a prominent issue in the UK’s education systems. Children should have equal advantages and opportunities for health, happiness and education wherever they grow up. However, insuﬃcient household income can mean that some children and young people do not have the resources they need for school, and cannot easily aﬀord to participate in school activities that have a cost. Missing out on opportunities because of financial barriers and feeling different makes it harder for children and young people to learn, achieve and be happy at school. An average of nine children in every class of 30 living below the UK’s poverty line. Financial requests made of their parents, and the costs themselves, put increased pressure on these families who cannot aﬀord to contribute – and should not have to.
While the current environment for schools is challenging, they can still play an important role in reducing the impact of poverty on children by making even small changes to their policies and practices to boost inclusivity. We know that teachers and school staff are looking for practical solutions to challenges they face on a daily basis, and with the right approach schools can autonomously remove barriers to learning and reduce poverty-related stigma – providing an environment where all pupils learn.
Already, as part of CPAG’s existing work in Scotland and Children North East’s Poverty Proofing the School Day programme, whole-school communities have been working together to address these barriers using a structured and non-stigmatising approach. With children and young people in the lead, the school community identifies key challenges throughout the school day from getting dressed for school, travel and trips, to learning resources, lunch and clubs. Children and young people have also been at the centre of developing solutions to these issues and, where schools have taken action, changes have helped to promote inclusion, raise attainment and bring the school community together. Importantly, many of these changes are cost neutral and just involve a slightly different way of doing things that improve a child’s experience of the school day.
Now, in collaboration with Children North East and others, we are set to extend the benefits of this approach to other parts of the UK, with direct poverty proofing work in 128 schools helping to shape school-level and local authority-wide action. Schools in Coventry, London, Moray (Scotland) and Neath Port Talbot (Wales) have signed up to the project and will be working with pupils to devise home-grown solutions which reduce and remove school-related costs that stand in the way of learning. Drawing on this, the UK Cost of the School Day project will advocate for evidence-based policy proposals and work across the UK’s education systems to shift attitudes, behaviours, policies and practices so that that all children, regardless of financial background, can fully participate in school and education.
Across the UK we often assume that because education is free, school is accessible for all children. However, in practice, when there is not much money at home, some of the learning and fun at school is simply out of reach – the pupils affected feel set apart and their learning is jeopardised. The UK Cost of the School Day project will put children at the heart of building a more equal education system – one in which no child is cut off from school life and the opportunities it brings and no family is put under extra pressure because of school costs.