This week, schools in England will open their doors to their full school community for the first time in almost six months. Children and young people’s experience of those months has varied enormously. Many low-income families have lacked the financial resources to support their children to learn at home, and many children have not had access to gardens or safe outdoor spaces. We know that families with children have been hardest hit by the economic effects of the pandemic, with 2 in 5 facing financial difficulty, and that the lowest paid have been most badly affected. In this perfect storm of a difficult lockdown and worsening household finances, there needs to be much more focus on family income as children return to school.
So far, the discussion around pupils’ return to school has primarily focused on the emerging attainment gap, the gaps in digital access and the impact of school closures on children’s mental health. These are all very important, but it is vital to talk explicitly about income. Guidance to support children and young people when they return to school doesn’t include financial considerations. There is also a lack of strong guidance on how to ensure pupils' and parents’ voices are heard in the return to school process. If they were we know that money concerns would come up.
At CPAG, we know from our Cost of the School Day project that attending school can often come with a high financial cost for families, and that this can cause great stress for parents and pupils. Even before the pandemic, low-income families were struggling with the costs associated with the school day. But this year, as families feel a particular income squeeze, the costs of returning to school and engaging with school life could leave families struggling to make ends meet. Families’ ability to meet the financial demands of the school day will affect the way children and young people experience education.
This year, many parents will have a smaller budget but will be facing even higher costs. Alongside the usual high costs of school (e.g. uniforms) there are going to be additional costs this year, including resources for home learning in case of a local lockdown and bringing in resources from home (e.g. pencil case or water bottles) for that individual pupil (because COVID-19 precautions prevent sharing).
And then there are ongoing costs associated with school attendance. Government guidance tells schools that they should be offering a broad curriculum from September, which is accessible to everyone. However, there is little guidance on ensuring that extra-curricular opportunities are accessible to all children equally. Schools are encouraged in the guidance to reopen breakfast and after-school clubs, but again, a family’s ability to meet the costs associated with attending has not been considered. These are important provisions for working parents, especially those parents in insecure, shift-based jobs. Failure to address this could have a further impact on a parent’s ability to work and consequently, the family’s income.
What needs to change?
As evidenced in last week’s report from the Education Policy Institute, income has a direct impact on a pupil’s experience of education and ultimately on their attainment, affecting their chances for choosing the future they want for themselves. By reducing school costs we can make education more accessible and equitable, but we also need to address family incomes.
The effect of poverty on a pupil’s ability to fully participate in education should be acknowledged, measured, and actively investigated by statutory bodies. The current pandemic provides an opportunity, while there is heightened awareness of the gaps in education, to place these issues at the heart of the education system.
At the national level, guidance from the Department for Education and Ofsted needs to recognise the financial challenges families face, so that schools can support all children as they return to school following the lockdown and in the longer term.
To boost family incomes to meet additional costs, as a starting point we are calling for a £10 a week increase to child benefit. In these uncertain times, child benefit is important in providing dependable income to support children.
The cost of schools opening up once again should not put families under greater financial pressure. We must take this opportunity to address school costs and support families, so that all children can benefit from a good education.
Our Cost of the Day project seeks to ensure that all children, regardless of financial background, can fully participate in education. The experiences and viewpoints of children and young people are at the heart of the project. The project puts children and young people, and their parents, in the lead to determine how to improve the school system. We are looking forward to going back into schools in the near future.