When the poorest families are priced out of school life

20th March 2015 at 00:00
Rising costs are a barrier to attainment, commission warns

School is becoming increasingly expensive, according to a new report, with the price of uniforms, trips and even fundraising events acting as a deterrent for the most deprived families.

Financial barriers to education should be removed by making more support available for parents, according to the report on reducing child poverty in Renfrewshire (bit.lyRenfrewPoverty).

The authors, including former chief medical officer Sir Harry Burns and John Carnochan, who set up Scotland's violence reduction unit, warn that the increasing financial burdens create "stigma and anxiety" for parents and children alike.

"The costs of the school day are rising; uniforms, classroom equipment, school trips and charity events are all putting increasing pressure on household budgets," the report says. "This creates stigma and anxiety for parents and children, and puts up more barriers to attainment." Addressing the attainment gap in schools is "critical to make sure children from low-income families are able to achieve their potential", it adds.

In the most deprived areas of Scotland, less than a third of young people leave school with at least one Higher; in the most affluent areas, the figure rises to four in five.

Last month, first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a pound;100 million fund to help struggling schools, with the money initially targeted at local authority areas with the greatest poverty.

However, the experts from Renfrewshire - where a fifth of children live in poverty - have called on the government to go further by linking national education funding with deprivation levels to help local authorities close the attainment gap.

They also want schools to introduce tailored interventions to boost the performance of pupils from less affluent backgrounds. These should focus on literacy and parental involvement, the report says.

"It is unacceptable that in the 21st century how much your parents earn affects how likely you are to do well at school," said Sue Ellis, professor of education at the University of Strathclyde, who sat on the commission. "This is about [everything from] the cost of pen and paper down to some schools in Scotland charging parents to attend the Christmas show.

"Even things like Red Nose Day can be difficult for parents living in poverty if they have to pay pound;1 for a non-uniform day and they have three kids."

David Nicholls, head of Gleniffer High in Paisley, who also sat on the commission, said schools should strive to offer wider opportunities to pupils but must bear in mind the financial burden on their parents.

"Schools are continually trying to raise their game in terms of the opportunities and experiences they offer, but when you do that there can be a cost involved, and we have to be mindful of that," he added.

Transport costs have also risen significantly, meaning that even taking sports teams to matches could cost upwards of pound;100, according to Andy Smith, headteacher of Carluke High in South Lanarkshire and vice-president of School Leaders Scotland. The key to guaranteeing participation was ensuring staff knew which students required additional support, he added.

In Glasgow, a project is underway in eight schools aimed at reducing the cost of school for families. The findings of the Cost of the School Day project - run by the Child Poverty Action Group - will be published in August.

A Renfrewshire parent told the report's authors: "The school is always coming up with wee trips and things like that, and then you're caught out. It's not very good that they don't give you enough notice.Maybe it's only pound;2 or pound;3 and they don't really see that pound;2 and pound;3 pounds is a big issue. But when you're struggling, it is."

Renfrewshire Council will meet on Monday to discuss the report's recommendations and decide what action it will take.

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