How is the cost of living crisis impacting UK schools and parents - will the situation get worse this winter?

Some schools have reported energy price rises of 500%, while uniform costs are a ‘real concern’ for parents

Schools and parents will have a “really hard time this winter” as the cost of living crisis deepens, the CEO of Parentkind told NationalWorld.

John Jolly said schools will struggle to keep up with rising energy bills and may have to make hard decisions about the length of the school day and whether they can afford to stay open five days a week.

One head teacher has told of how his school’s yearly energy bill looks set to double from around £20,000 to £40,000 or even £50,000 plus.

While a leading union has said some members are reporting rises of as much as 500% for energy costs.

The cost of living crisis is also hitting parents, with many struggling to pay for school uniforms as prices across the board shoot up.

The Education Bill, which will see schools keeping branded items to a minimum, is being introduced in September - but Mr Jolly says the legislation is “too late to impact on this year”.

NationalWorld has spoken to national charities and school union leaders to understand the current situation parents are facing with school uniform costs, the help available for struggling families and how the cost of living crisis will impact schools this winter.

How is the cost of living crisis impacting schools?

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said schools are seeing “extreme” increases in their energy bills.

He said: “When we surveyed school leaders on energy costs in April, the average increase anticipated was over 100%, but things have clearly got much worse since then.

“Some of our members have reported rises of as much as 500% – the equivalent of several members of staff.”

He told NationalWorld that over summer school leaders have seen staff costs rise and are “really concerned” about what they can do from September “to make school budgets balanced.”

He said: “Many are finding that the only possible action they can take is to cut staff hours – in particular the hours of Teaching Assistants, who do incredibly valuable work supporting the most vulnerable and highest needs pupils in classrooms.”

School leaders are urging Liz Truss, the newly elected Prime Minister, to tackle the spiralling cost of energy.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Given that there is no energy price cap at all for schools and colleges, spiralling bills will mean that they have to cut educational provision in order to balance their budgets.

“We’ve seen the reports of an emergency package of financial assistance apparently due to be announced later this week and we look forward to the details.

“We appeal to the new Prime Minister to ensure that she protects families, children, schools and colleges from the potentially devastating impact of these costs.”

Dr Paul Gosling, president of school leaders’ union NAHT and head teacher of Exeter Road Community Primary School in Exmouth, said: “At the moment, my school, for example, my energy bill every year is usually around £20,000 – I’m now told it’s going to be double that – £40,000 maybe £50,000 plus – and add on to the top of that a pay award for staff that is unfunded by government – even that 5% pay award just wipes out the notion that we’ll be returning to 2010 levels of real terms funding.

“School leaders this summer are opening up their laptops, looking at energy costs particularly, and the increase in staff costs that are coming in, and are really concerned.”

Will the situation for schools get worse this winter?

Mr Whiteman said “rising energy will almost certainly have a negative impact on education next term.”

He added: “Money is being diverted away from education and from pupils and being given to energy companies instead. That just isn’t right.

“If the government doesn’t step in to help, many schools are predicting that they will be plunged into deficit this year.”

Meanwhile Mr Gosling said that before the next Prime Minister was announced, both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were not “touching this issue” despite the fact “this crisis is hitting us pretty fast”.- the PM will have been selected by the time this is published, so will need tweaked or paraphrased.

He added: “School leaders are working really hard this summer to work things out but there are no obvious solutions – it just needs more money.

“Which is why you get some people coming up with ideas like a 4 day week, which is just a suggestion – these are desperate ideas at a time of crisis.”

Mr Jolly told NationalWorld that he thinks the Government will make sure that schools remain open but “you will see some schools having to make hard decisions about the length of the school day and looking at whether they can afford to stay open five days a week.”

He said: “School leaders are really concerned. Schools are looking at sometimes their energy costs going up by three times.

“We still have Covid kicking around and that requires schools to have adequate ventilation and that is also an increasing heating cost.”

He added: “I think many schools will struggle this year to actually meet the increasing costs of a whole range of things from heating to teacher salaries to ongoing supply costs.

“Schools are going to have a really hard time this winter along with parents.”

What support is there for parents struggling with school uniform costs?

Parentkind, the largest network of PTA fundraisers in the UK, found that 38% of parents in 2021 said school uniforms were their top financial concern when sending their child to school.

Mr Jolly told NationalWorld school uniforms costs are a “real concern for parents and with the cost of living crisis on top of everything else it is going to be a greater concern.”

Parentkind’s 2021 Northern Ireland School Uniform Survey showed  parents are, each year, spending £173 per primary school child and £378 per post-primary school child on school uniform, PE kit and footwear.

The Children’s Society estimates 780,000 children have to wear uniforms that do not fit because their parents cannot afford to keep buying new items.

Mr Jolly said he is seeing a lot of Parent Teacher Associations and schools starting up pre-loved uniform warehouses.

He said: “These warehouses help parents to keep the costs down by reusing uniforms that are no longer required when children move out of school, move up a year or grow out of them.

“It is one way parents and schools are coming together to provide an alternative.”

Thomas Cave, Policy Manager from The Children’s Society, said: “There are also lots of local uniform swaps, pre-loved uniforms for sale and uniform banks run by community groups or even just by parents.

“We would suggest parents contact their school about these initially or search in local online community groups and forums like Facebook.”

Mr Cave also offered more advice to parents, saying: “We would also highlight that parents can go to this Gov.UK page to see if they can get support for uniform costs from their local council or the Turn2us Grants Search where they may be able to find charitable grants.”

In Tamworth a free uniform pop-in shop for any families who need school uniforms was held on Saturday 29 July.

Local Tamworth councillor, Tina Clements told NationalWorld about the event which had “over 40 bags of uniform donated which were then all sorted by volunteers and ready to go out.”

Ms Clements said: “Most things are still in good condition and wearable so why not reuse?

“We counted over 35 families coming in to get school uniforms so we were pleased to be able to help these families out.

“We will be doing this again before the end of the holidays so people can pick up what they need free of charge.”

Countries in the UK also have a school uniform grant schemes which parents may be eligible to apply for.

In England you can get a school uniform grant worth up to £150, but not all local authorities will offer the support.

In Wales, you can get up to £20 toward the cost of school uniform per child for Year 7 pupils, or £125 for reception, Year 3 and Year 10 pupils.

Scottish families are entitled to at least £120 per primary school child, and £150 for secondary school kids. In Northern Ireland you can claim up to £78.

Will the school uniform bill make a difference?

The Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill was introduced by Labour MP Mike Amesbury and hopes to see schools keeping branded items to a minimum.

Parentkind said it would “welcome” the new law but it “doesn’t come into effect until September 2022, and even at that point schools which need to secure a new uniform contract with a supplier have until December 2022 to organise it.”

Mr Jolly said the legislation “doesn’t actually say that school uniforms have to cost less than this, it just gives a whole list of guidelines to schools about things to consider.”

He said it is “really too early for that to have had an impact coming into the cost of living crisis this winter because schools have to work through contracts they have with suppliers and it only really comes into full effect in September this year.”

He added: “It is too late to impact this year, but it will impact subsequent years.

“It is hoped that the legislation will overtime bring down the cost of uniforms in England.”