We talk to lots of families as part of our Cost of the School Day project. This gives us a valuable insight into how parents perceive school costs within an increasingly challenging economic landscape: 'The cost of school on top of the other increasing costs, due to inflation, can feel overwhelming' (Parent); 'My mam says "you’ve got to prioritise" but I am prioritising! Everything’s going up, I’m going for the cheaper options, you can make cuts all you want, but food and clothing on top of everything. It’s hard.' (Parent).
The rising cost of day-to-day essentials, employment insecurity and benefit changes have created a seismic shift in our society. Many families are suffering in silence: 'It’s hard for parents to ask for help with money as they feel they will be judged' (Parent). To overcome these barriers parents tell us they value a welcoming, friendly open-door ethos at their children’s school: 'They are approachable and non-judgemental' (Parent) with home-school communication that is clear, consistent, up-to-date, sensitive and provided through multiple channels: 'They’re really good at communicating with us. They have four or five different ways: Texts, letters, Teacher2Parent app, another app and Facebook, which they update daily' (Parent).
The quality of the relationships with family engagement officers, office and teaching staff impacts greatly on how families feel about their schools: 'The lady who runs the office, she’s exemplary... She knows everyone and she’s invested in the community and she’ll take time to talk to anyone about anything, big or small' (Parent). A school has a privileged position at the heart of the community and can provide support to families in numerous ways. The importance of robust family engagement and community focus has been highlighted through a £25m investment boost from the Welsh government to provide support to schools in these key areas, and help ensure that all pupils can fully participate in school life.
As well as long-term planning, there are quick fixes and small tweaks that all schools can make. One of the simplest forms of support is the targeted use of notice boards, letters, newsletters, websites and social media accounts to signpost to support services or income maximisation measures: 'The school was brilliant, they reminded me to do my school admissions for comp [comprehensive school] and they reminded about the uniform entitlement too' (Parent). One parent suggested that by doing this, help and support became 'more ‘visible’ so parents/carers don’t have to ask if they are embarrassed.'
Families appreciate a relaxed approach to school uniform: 'As long as it’s school colours the school are flexible.' (Parent). Uniform recycling schemes and costume banks feature heavily in our best practice schools. We know that non-uniform days can highlight financial differences: 'Fun events eg, book day costume cost x 3 can be expensive though not essential it can be very hurtful for children to see 90% of the class dressed up and some have not been able to...' (Parent). Celebration and charity days can be extremely costly and parents stress the need for ample notice: 'Costumes are very expensive to purchase at short notice… if the school could do a yearly planner or at least a termly planner, it would give parents more time to budget or make DIY costumes' (Parent).
Optional and anonymous online charity donations are a positive antidote to multiple fundraising requests: 'I have at times had to consider the social repercussions of not donating' (Parent); 'Last year I felt like with this school all I seemed to be doing was giving. Felt like something all the time. Bring a donation this, bring a donation that. We only had one income and it felt constant' (Parent). Some schools prioritise exploring the meaning behind a charity rather than sell charity merchandise that can see some children left out.
There isn’t space here to feature all their amazing ideas, such as payment plans, saving clubs, community partnership schemes. But I’d like to finish with a tribute to all the support schools have given their families, especially during these past difficult years. I vividly remember the words of one of our head teachers, with 13 members of staff absent at the time. It sums up the commitment, passion and can-do attitude fostered by every senior leader we’ve been privileged to work with: 'You fight for them; you fight for the community'.
A version of this piece first appeared in Children in Wales Spring 2022 magazine. It is also available in Welsh.