Comment: Families can be put under pressure by unexpected costs

First published in Opinion

Education is a big part of every child’s life. Schools, colleges and nurseries do a great job in providing a wide range of activities and new experiences for their students.

But the costs of education seem to be getting out of hand.

The obvious costs of education include school uniform, lunch money and travel, all of which are predictable and can be saved towards and budgeted for.

However, there is an increasing number of unexpected costs which appear at short notice and can place families under severe financial pressure.

The National Curriculum requires some educational trips, but the costs can seem disproportionately high, especially when the family has not had the funds to go on day trips or holidays for a long time.

Parent Teacher Associations often contribute towards coach hire etc, but fund-raising places pressure on low-income families too.

Take Christmas for example, a very expensive time for everyone and especially for families. Many schools and nurseries put on a Christmas concert, but parents often have to provide stage outfits, buy tickets to attend, raffle tickets and refreshments during the interval and a souvenir DVD because photography is not allowed.

While all of these costs are discretionary, there is social pressure to attend and show support towards your child and school.

It’s not unusual to hear of end of term social events such as a disco, or a trip to a bowling alley. Costs could be as high as £30 with just a week or two to find the money.

Many families have more than one child, making the costs multiply.

The Citizens Advice Bureau gives free, impartial and confidential debt and money advice to anyone. Many families live on a very tight budget with just a few pounds spare each week, while paying off debt and trying to stay afloat with rising costs of rent, council tax, food and utilities.

There are a lot of minimum wage and seasonal jobs in South Lakeland, making it very hard for families to make ends meet. With five INSET days each year, parents often pay for childcare or take unpaid leave, a double hit on income.

This will get worse when the new benefit system called Universal Credit goes live in October. Government data predicts one in eight homes will be worse off by an average of £137 per month.

Data shows school-related costs to be £2,500 annually per child - parents spending less worry the school will think badly of them.

So how can head teachers and governors help families through these hard economic times?

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau has contacted every school, nursery and college in the South Lakeland area to ask head teachers and governors to adopt 10 principles of best practice towards controlling school costs. It includes making sure school uniform is available from a range of outlets, with sew-on badges, second-hand uniform sales or swap schemes.

We want to see parents given a schedule of trips for the school year in September so they can budget accordingly, making it clear which trips are essential for school work and which are for fun.

We want to make sure letters don’t imply that ‘voluntary’ contributions are obligatory for trips to go ahead.

Your local councillors and MP have also been informed.

Help us. Complete our confidential online survey. You can find it on the homepage of our website www.cumbriaruralcab.org.uk We will use the data with Cumbria County Council to try to influence change.

Free, confidential advice and help is available on debt, benefits, consumer problems, employment, housing and any other problems.You can contact us by telephone or in person. Contact Grange-over-Sands on 015395 33100 and for appointments at Windermere and Ambleside 015394 46464.

We will soon have appointments in Kendal and Ulverston. Check our website for details www.cumbriaruralcab.org.uk

Karen Evans, Manager of Cumbria Rural Citizens Advice Bureau

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