The cost of children returning to school has prompted a spike in parents seeking financial help in Coventry.
But is is not an everyday issue that might come with back to school, but a financial pressure borne out of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Coventry’s Citizens Advice has said that Coventry schools are asking parents to purchase multiple school uniform sets to safeguard against the spread of Covid-19.
But with the costs of one branded uniform set costing up to £90, it is a worrying time for families, many of whom are under a considerable amount of pressure as the economic impact of Covid-19 continues to reveal itself.
Different schools vary in their uniform requirements, but the underlying issue remains, that families are now being asked to buy multiple sets of uniform, wash them regularly, and cover all the additional costs that come with that.
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Ed Hodson, from Coventry Citizens Advice said that this extra requirement has put financial, economic and psychological strain on parents preparing for the return to school.
Speaking to CoventryLive, he said: “It starts with material stress, people on furlough or unemployed.
“Even if rent arrears have been suspended and temporary protections put in place, those are going to be withdrawn as we speak, it’s already started.
“The icing on the cake is going back to school, which is good, but we heard about three weeks ago, a case in Coventry where a parent had come to her asking for help because they had been asked by their school to provide multiple sets of uniform, and to wash their uniform on a daily basis as a precautionary measure for Covid-19.
“Our main concern that with the wider impact of Covid-19 on employment and incomes, [there is] social impact, psychological impact, and families with children are under a lot of stress.
“There’s been a lot to offset that, job retention schemes, the extension of free school meals, suspension of evictions, suspension of face to face debt collections, but the fact remains that everyone is under some kind of financial stress.”
Mr Hodson said his colleagues noticed families coming in to ask for help for the same uniform issue.
He added: “We know that just one set of uniform is very costly, if you get a full set from everything from blazers to sports kit, this is a lot of money. If you’re being asked to get multiples of this, and wash this everyday, there’s an assumption made here that you stick it in the washing machine, what about people that don’t have a washing machine? Imagine the expense of that.”
Watch: How to keep children safe
The struggle in numbers
In fact, the number of clients seen at Coventry Citizens Advice about education issues has risen from 33 to 57 (73% increase) between April to August this year, compared to the same period last year. This is mainly due to queries about digital-homeschooling.
Between Coventry Citizens Advice and Coventry Independent Advice Services (CIAS), 15 clients were supported with school uniform costs last week alone.
We looked at a local uniform supplier’s site to calculate how much a full branded set might cost for one child. For a girl attending a local primary school, the cost of a cardigan, (£15.99), a twin pack of shirts (£19.99), a skirt (£19.99), P.E shorts (£9.99), a P.E polo shirt (£13.99), P.E pumps (£4.50) would cost £84.45.
Prices differ slightly between each school brand, but calculate that for three children in one family for example, incorporating the new requirement for multiple sets, it is easy to see the scale of the pressure facing families.
Mr Hodson emphasised that Coventry Citizens Advice is the “canary in the coalmine”, and the cases they see are the “tip of the iceberg”. More often than not there will be countless families trying to struggle through without accessing help.
He said: “To hear about that many cases with the same type of story made me feel that we should do something about it.
“We understand the problems and challenges that schools are facing.
“Trying to influence schools is incredibly difficult, a lot of them are not under the influence of the local council, we’re not expecting some decree from Coventry City Council, but our request is for the council to get involved or if they have something going on, to contribute to this campaign, we know time is of the essence.”
We asked Coventry City Council what help is available. A Council spokesperson said: “The Council does not have a grants scheme for school uniforms. However some schools have hardship funds that they may operate and there are also various charities that operate such as the Children’s Boot Fund.
“As a Council, we do have various crisis awards and community grants that people can apply for. We encourage anyone who thinks they might qualify for these grants and awards to visit our website to see what help is available.”
‘Strict school uniform may need to be relaxed’
We put the findings from Coventry Citizens Advice to councillor Kevin Maton, cabinet member for education. Cllr Maton said: “One of the ways we can deal with this is finding a way that we can find a relaxation with the type of uniforms the schools want during this particular time.
“Blazers for example can only be dry cleaned, so the idea that you have parents dry cleaning blazers every week I can imagine that can be really difficult.”
He went on to say: “Other costs that we will have to look at, for me the most worrying is that the gap between the most disadvantaged areas and advantaged in terms of children’s learning is increasing.”
He also spoke of the added considerations families have to make: “You can get transport and food [funded by the] school, other than that the costs of a school day are relatively small and not the issue, it’s actually the implication of having to find childcare and fund childcare out of the term times and if people are having to go in out of work.”
He went on to say: “Strict school uniform may need to be relaxed during this time to allow for frequent washing.
“This has obviously got to be raised across the schools, at the end of September we have a meeting with heads of primary and secondary schools and special schools. I would aim to put this issue of uniforms on their agenda, there are a number of ways of dealing with it.
“We need a change in how schools operate, instead of looking around for funds and money.”
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Coventry – a Marmot city
Mr Hodson referenced Coventry’s title as a Marmot city. As reported by CoventryLive last year, a Marmot city is an area with health inequalities that the government wants to tackle.
Research shows that people living in deprived areas are more likely to develop ill health and live for a shorter time than those living in well-off areas – and in Coventry the gap is particularly wide.
As part of the Marmot Network, Coventry has had access to international experts on reducing health inequality.
Mr Hodson said that with Coventry on the Marmot agenda, child poverty is something that is being closely tackled by partnership of agencies across the city, including Coventry Citizen’s Advice.
But as this continues, so do the struggles of local families. So what do Citizen’s Advice recommend to clients worried about uniform costs? “Our adviser will recommend to speak to the school, access potential hardship funds, or they can try and access accessible funds from elsewhere, or a uniform swap scheme, if they think it is an injustice they can try and lobby the school, or speak to their councillor and MP.
“Rather than pushing parents to rely on charity, we think the quickest and simplest thing is to get the school to review their uniform policy, you don’t need to have logo uniform all the way through” Mr Hobson said.
Mr Hodson said: “The wider issue is then the impact of Covid-19 itself, throw all of that in the mix and asking for multiple set of uniform might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
“The biggest thing from our point of view is that we can’t tell schools what to do, so we ask parents and the council to put pressure on schools, once it’s too late people have spent money or they’ve gone into school without uniform and you have the issue of stigma and marginalisation.
“This is not the right of way to start school.”
Is affording uniforms something that has affected you? Contact our community reporter Naomi: email@example.com