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More help for the poor

New grants scheme would take a uniform approach at start of secondary. James Graham reports

Poor children starting secondary school could receive additional help with buying new uniform, under proposals for a national grants scheme in Wales.

At present, local education authorities can choose how much money is made available to help parents with the cost of school clothing. Currently five give no assistance, and the remaining 17 offer anything from pound;20 to Pounds 155, according to official figures.

The national scheme, earmarked to start in September, is aimed at Year 7 pupils when they join secondary school - considered to be the most expensive time for parents. It also applies to special-school pupils who are 11 years old at the start of the school year.

Grants, expected to be around pound;85, would supplement the patchwork of funds currently offered by LEAs, and be available to pupils already entitled to free school meals. The Welsh Assembly government plans to commit pound;750,000 a year to the scheme.

Citizens Advice Cymru, which has been campaigning for more financial help, says its advisers work with an increasing number of parents who are unable to meet the rising cost of uniform, now estimated at around pound;185 a year.

Last year it called for greater consistency from LEAs and urged the Assembly to issue grants of pound;100 for pupils about to go to secondary school.

It said failure to wear the proper uniform, "can lead to a child being disciplined, marked out as being poor or even as a disruptive influence. It can mean young people are excluded from the social and academic life of the school".

Alun Gruffudd, the organisation's Assembly liaison officer, said he was encouraged by the government's commitment but suggested more could be done.

He said: "They should go further because that doesn't cover some essential kit, like sports equipment. It's a significant cost when a family has more than one child and it particularly affects single parents."

Last year Citizens Advice found that Cardiff, Caerphilly, the Vale of Glamorgan, Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen offered no help with uniform, while Merthyr Tydfil was the most generous. A Blaenau Gwent spokesperson said the authority had axed clothing grants because of budgetary pressures.

"The funding we had available was insufficient to meet the increasing costs of school uniforms. We also had to balance this provision with our desire to maintain funding in other areas."

She added: "We welcome additional financial support for families on low incomes. In some parts of the authority we have high percentages of pupils who qualify for free school meals, so a significant number of young people and families should benefit from this."

The initiative has been welcomed by the major teaching unions and children's charities.

Heledd Hayes, the National Union of Teachers Cymru's education officer, said: "Even though some authorities are more affluent than others, they all have people who are financially constrained."

Consultations on the proposals close on May 26.

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