In the beginning
Almost 5 years ago, in October 2016, the Dundee Fairness Commission and Dundee City Council agreed to commission joint work with the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland to facilitate a Cost of the School Day initiative. During session 2016/17 CPAG worked with pupils, parents and teachers to identify key cost barriers and subsequently supported schools to remove these barriers so that all children and young people, no matter the household income, can fully engage in their education.
At that time, I was not directly involved with the project but the outcomes of the report, and the implementation of the action points from it very soon became an integral part of my Depute Head Teacher role in a secondary school. Now, as an Education Officer, I am able to draw on that experience in advising and supporting schools.
Over the course of the first year of work, the project conducted over 80 workshops with primary and secondary pupils, held focus groups with staff in targeted nurseries and schools as well as interviewing almost 200 parents and carers. This research resulted in The Cost of the School Day Dundee report being published and every school in the city asked to review the needs of their pupils facing cost barriers to fully participating in schools. Funding from the Scottish Attainment Challenge enabled the Children and Families Service to continue to work with CPAG. A Cost of the School Day Project Officer employed to support the work continued to work with schools until March 2020.
In addition to the work in schools, the evidence from the research influenced local authority policy and in October 2018 Dundee City Council launched four bold Cost of the School Day statements of intent proposing that:
- All schools will develop a Cost of the School Day action plan by the end of session 2018/2019
- No child or young person in Dundee will start school without a breakfast
- No child in Dundee will miss out on their Primary 7 residential trip due to cost
- All children and young people in Dundee schools will have access to an affordable school uniform
Schools were encouraged to form a Cost of the School Day Working Group and identify a school lead (where my involvement began) in order to develop an action plan. This action plan identifies key tasks schools undertake to meet the city-wide statements of intent. Throughout session 18/19 the CPAG Project Officer facilitated focus groups of parents and carers, teachers and pupils across the city and supported working groups to use the CPAG resource materials.
Raising awareness sessions were widely publicised and targeted at specific groups of staff, especially those in supporting roles (e.g. School and Family Development Workers, school office workers). These staff, by the nature of their role, have regular contact with parents and carers and by building strong relationships are in a perfect position to offer information and support around available financial aid.
School leads were encouraged to join Practice Network events and share successful practice that was being introduced in schools to help address our Cost of the School Day statements of intent. These twilight meetings proved to be very successful and by the start of session 19/20 all schools had an action plan in place addressing much more than the statements of intent. At the last count there were more than 200 interventions in place across the city. These range from school uniform ‘wardrobes’, ‘bring and/or take’ cosy coat racks, food larders in school foyers, providing breakfast to free menstruation products available for pupils and family members.
Our formal partnership with CPAG in Scotland may have ended in March 2020 but that did not mean that Cost of the School day actions or the effects of poverty on our children and families was forgotten. That same month schools closed as a result of Covid-19 but, helped by the work of the previous three years, staff were in a strong position to identify the families most in need and worked quickly to address immediate concerns. Headteachers had to mitigate against home-learning becoming cost prohibitive. Schools worked hard to ensure that all pupils were able to access learning. Where IT was an issue some schools allowed families to borrow hardware whilst others distributed re-conditioned laptops and tablets. 3rd sector partners supported in a similar way by donating tablets, laptops and data packages. If accessing IT was not possible home learning packs were distributed by school staff. Regular food parcels were delivered where necessary whilst teachers and support staff maintained regular contact with families. Dundee City Council’s decision to make direct payments to those in receipt of Free School Meals was positively received by parents and carers.
At the start of each academic session, Headteachers deliver an ‘Equalities and Diversity’ presentation and a section of this focuses on Cost of the School day, highlighting the extent of child poverty in Dundee and reminding all staff of the importance of reducing the costs associated to school for families. In addition, all school staff are encouraged to complete an e-learning module which was developed for Dundee by colleagues at the CPAG in Scotland.
In partnership with Active Schools, we have made a commitment to children and their families that all pupils will have free access to sports and physical activity before school, at lunchtime and after school. The Young Scot Attain Fund is ensuring that free city-wide bus travel is available to all eligible secondary school pupils and will remain in place until the recently announced Scottish Government Under 21 Free Bus Travel scheme comes in to play.
A newly formed steering group, led by myself, with representatives from school and early years settings as well as Active Schools and the Dundee Fairness Commission meet regularly to ensure a focus remains on tackling poverty inequalities associated with school. It is hoped that a termly CoSD Newsletter will be produced sharing good practice.
As we look to a post-pandemic future, Cost of the School Day certainly remains a priority within the city.