The cost of learning in lockdown

Published on: 
18 June 2020

Survey reveals school closure costs fall heaviest on low-income parents

  • More support needed for children and parents during current and future disruptions to school life – alternatives to free school meals are essential.
  • 40% of low-income families report they were missing at least one essential resource to support their children's learning – one third of the families who are most worried about money have had to buy a laptop, tablet or other device. 
  • Replacement of free school meals is greatly valued by parents and has been critical to helping families make ends meet. Payments directly into parents' bank accounts are much more popular than a voucher scheme. 81% of families receiving direct payments said this was working extremely or very well for them, compared with 60% of families receiving vouchers that can be spent in more than one supermarket, 46% of families having food delivered, 36% of families collecting food and 35% of families receiving vouchers cards usable in only one supermarket.
  • Children and young people value contact with teachers and classmates – secondary school pupils were more likely to report doing 'a lot' of schoolwork at home if they are regularly keeping in touch with teachers.
  • When children can go back to school parents' primary concern is children's wellbeing. Emotional support for returning children was deemed by parents to be the most important factor. When asked how schools can help, 1 in 3 raised this as a top priority.

The survey of 3600 parents and carers and 1300 children and young people in England, Scotland and Wales was carried out by CPAG's 'UK Cost of the School Day' project, run in partnership with Children North East, during May 2020. It explored experiences of learning during lockdown, to understand how families – particularly those on low incomes – were supported when the Covid-19 pandemic forced schools across the UK to close their doors to the majority of pupils. 

It found that Covid-19 magnified some of the factors that contribute to negative outcomes associated with children growing up in poverty. The low-income parents and carers responding to the survey were just as likely to be concerned with helping their children to continue learning through lockdown. However, they reported facing significantly more stress and worry around home learning and household finances than parents and carers in better off homes.

Other key findings in the report, entitled 'The Cost of Learning in Lockdown – family experiences of school closures' include:

  • Around a third of all families who responded said that they were enjoying learning at home, and these families were much less likely to report having money worries or lacking the resources they needed. Families who were worried about money were more likely to say they found it difficult to continue their children's education at home.
  • Children and young people valued being able to communicate with their teachers online, but phone calls were also highly appreciated by those that had received them. Parents and carers valued schools that took the time to understand their particular circumstances and offer personalised support. 
  • Pupils who said that they were having infrequent or no contact with their schools reported doing much less work. Pupils who reported doing a lot of work at home were more likely to report that their schools had provided them with the resources to help them work at home.
  • Socioeconomic status did not hugely influence parental views about returning to school. Many were supportive of a gradual, phased approach with a primary emphasis on social and emotional support.

The surveys found that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a hugely varied experience for families across the UK. Schools are likely to find that pupils are coming back to class having lived through very different lockdown experiences over the last few months. While learning loss and inequitable academic progress rightly concern educators and policymakers, parents and young people have told us they are equally concerned with the longer-term effects of increased social isolation and household stress.  

Families believe that schools have a vital role to play in helping children come to terms with the pandemic and the disruption it has caused to their childhoods. More than anything, children and young people told us they are desperate to reconnect with their friends. They view returning to school as their main opportunity to do this, and educators are now faced with the challenge of managing these expectations, while ensuring safety in their schools.

The report's key recommendations include:

Support with costs and resources 

  • Increase child benefit by £10 per child per week. 
  • Provide all children with the learning tools needed for the curriculum, at home or at school. 
  • Schools should be properly funded to remove barriers to learning. 
  • Information regarding financial support and entitlements must reach families.

Alternatives to free school meals

  • Cash payments should replace the value of free school meals.
  • The earnings threshold for eligibility for free school meals should be urgently reviewed. 

Supporting pupil wellbeing 

  • Schools should maintain regular contact with pupils and families to support learning and wellbeing.
  • Schools should implement poverty aware approaches, policies and practices as pupils return.

Returning to school

  • Children and young people want to spend time with their friends and teachers and feel 'normal' again.
  • Families must be involved in planning for the return to school.

Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of CPAG said:

"When it comes to bearing the additional costs of learning at home during the pandemic, we are not 'all in it together'. School closures place additional cost burdens on families who were already struggling to get by before being hit by the additional financial pressures of Covid-19. Free school meal alternatives, and in particular cash alternatives, are essential for families and more widely, an urgent increase to child benefit of £10 per week is needed so that all parents can do their best to support their children's learning and wellbeing through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. ​

"All parents want the best for their children and to support their learning. As we move towards new approaches to schooling, such as a mix of home and school-based learning, the school day must be 'poverty-proofed' regardless of where learning is taking place so that all children can take part in the whole curriculum."

Parents, carers, children and young people who responded to CPAG's survey said -

On learning resources and devices:

"We have no device that can allow my 9 year old to participate in Teams online. Its not supported on her Amazon Fire and I cant afford to upgrade her. She is also missing out on the chat facility and has therefore lost the connection with her class. I'm heartbroken for her to be honest." (Mum, Scotland)

"They are not learning as don't have access to even library resources. We already had limited material due to lack of money to buy stuff." (Parent of 9 year old, England)

"Most things are online and require to be printed. Have spent £100 on ink just trying to keep up and to encourage them to do some worksheets as they can't always get on the laptop." (Mum, Scotland)

"I need computer to do my assignment. Five of us share one computer in the family" (Girl, 15, Dundee)

"I share the desk top with my brother for his homework too. He is in primary school. I miss my laptop from school because I am dyslexic & it helps me more. I miss my teachers because they can help me better, especially when I'm not confident in what I'm doing. I miss my friends a lot." (Girl, 12, Inverness)

"The children need to print work at home. Sadly I cannot afford the printer ink." (Parent, Hampshire)

On food costs and free school meals replacement:

"I am struggling to provide all the children need. The children seem to be hungrier than normal.  I am dreading the school holidays." (Mum of 5, Perth and Kinross)

"My food costs have increased significantly over this period and it is hard to budget." (Mum, West Lothian)

"Edenred vouchers have been difficult to redeem, school is helping to sort this out. In meantime school have been arranging food box's for all the families which have been a life saver for us." (Mum, London)

"Due to me being Type 1 diabetic and needing to shield it's hard to be able to use the vouchers because you cannot use them online. Would have been a lot more helpful if they could have been used online. I am grateful for the help but unfortunately I have not been able to use mine yet." (Mum of 3, Coventry)

"The problem is that the vouchers have an expiry date and it's not everything that I need is in those specified supermarkets. So cash will be much better." (Mum, Bexley)

"Cash payments takes the embarrassing factor out of it, we don't need to queue for food bags or receive vouchers, we don't feel ashamed for needing help this way." (Mum, Angus).

"The extra money has really helped as I didn't have the budget for the extra food the kids need without the free school meal each day. It allows me to choose things that I know my children will eat in sandwiches. It also still allows me to buy fruit for them which I normally wouldn't buy as they eat it at school." (Mum, Angus)

"Money in the bank is much easier as i have 2 autistic children with restrictive diets. Collecting a packed lunch wouldn't work as they wouldn't eat the things provided. The money means i can get the foods they will eat from which ever shop sells it. The food bank deliveries, which come to my house, feed my and the 5 year old and they provide the staples for me to make healthy dinners. There are lots of things the older two will eat as well." (Mum of 3, Neath Port Talbot)

On contact and communication with teachers and school staff:

"It's not necessarily the resources, it's been the phone calls and offer of any support that I have found the most helpful." (Dad, Glasgow)

"They give us some homework and advice. Other teachers check in on us. Our English teacher updates us on plays that are streaming online." (Girl, 16, Edgware)

"The school sends assembly and messages to mum to check we are OK. My teacher sends me learning and positive messages that cheer me up." (Girl, 7, Angus)

"It would be nice if the teacher could check in with us, a phone call from her teacher would really boost my daughter. Also I would benefit from a ten minute chat to discuss my worries about home learning." (Mum, Dacorum)

On returning to school: 

"Very low academic expectations ... focus on the social emotional experiences of returning to large groups after many months of only being with family, and managing anxiety." (Parent, Cardiff)

"Focus on play, physical activity and emotional well-being first. Gradually work towards full academic timetable. Ensure teachers and staff are ok, safe, supported etc as children will pick up on their anxiety and fears." (Mum, Manchester)

"Talk and explore what covid19 means for children. Fear is a big issue and before they start trying to teach! Children other maths and English this needs to be addressed otherwise children will be psychologically affected." (Mum of 3, Stockport)


Notes to Editors: 

  1. Parents who took part in the survey may be available for interview via CPAG's press office on 07816 909302 
  2. The full report is available on request. 
  3. For Scottish press enquiries please call CPAG in Scotland on 07834 375321.
  4. Note on methodology: 
  • All fieldwork for this report took place in May 2020. Primary data collection was carried out via a pair of open surveys that collected responses between the 1 and 25 May 2020. The aim was not to produce a representative sample of all UK households with children, but rather to gather rich insight from households who were going through lockdown in a wide variety of social circumstances. We deliberately sought to gather experiences from households in receipt of means-tested benefits (as a proxy for low income) and from children and young people who usually receive free school meals. We distributed the surveys through various partner organisations, including local authority education departments and schools, and promoted them to the public on social media.
  • Our first survey gathered responses from parents or carers of school-aged children (3-18) who attended school in Great Britain. We used quota sampling to ensure that we heard from sufficient households living on a low income (assessed as being in receipt of, or in the process of claiming, income-related benefits such as universal credit, income support or tax credits). We also collected a small amount of demographic data about the respondents.
  • In our second survey, we sought the views of children and young people who usually attend school. Respondents were routed to different questions depending on whether they attended primary or secondary school. Young people were also able to take part via WhatsApp, although none eventually used this method.
  • Due to the sampling and participant recruitment methods used, we collected more responses from families in Scotland than in England and Wales. Although 90% of respondents in the parent and carers survey are from Scotland, sub-group analysis shows there are no meaningful differences between Scottish respondents and respondents from elsewhere in Great Britain Where there were notable differences between the nations, this is discussed in the analysis.

About the UK Cost of the School Day project: 

CPAG's UK Cost of the School Day project helps school communities identify and overcome cost barriers that shape and limit children's opportunities at school. We work with children, parents, carers and school staff to identify these cost barriers and help them take action to remove them. The Cost of the School Day was started in 2014 by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland. It has now expanded to England, Wales and new parts of Scotland with funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and working in close partnership with Children North East to 'poverty proof' schools. 

In January 2020, an independent evaluation of the Cost of the School Day project Scotland found that the project is supporting policy and practice changes across schools and local authorities in Scotland, and increasing awareness of child poverty.
About the Poverty Proofing the School Day programme

The aim of Poverty Proofing the School Day is to remove barriers to learning which exist because of the impacts of living in poverty. The Poverty Proofing audit consists of a whole-school evaluation, a written report and action plan and training for staff and governors. It is aimed at uncovering institutional and cultural practices which stigmatise pupils who live in poverty.


CPAG media contacts: Jane Ahrends and Léa Corban on 07816 909302