Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Free Education?

Millions of families are struggling with the hidden costs of sending children to state school, with many forced to take out loans or scrimp on food and heating to pay for basics such as dinners, uniforms, course materials and trips.

Parents face average annual bills of £800 a pupil, although this can be much higher, with some state secondary school uniforms costing more than £500, making the idea of a free education “far from reality”, according to the Children’s Commission on Poverty inquiry. 

More than 95% of parents on low incomes reported difficulties meeting school-related costs, while large numbers of poorer children said they fell behind academically and were subjected to humiliation, embarrassment and bullying because their poverty made them “stand out” in the classroom. The report of the inquiry said teachers and schools often did not comprehend the psychological impact of poverty on pupils. They failed to do enough to prevent poorer pupils being stigmatised, and adopted practices that often inadvertently identified them as “poor”, such as by segregating pupils in receipt of free school meals.

Uniforms represented a big challenge to many parents, the inquiry found, with huge variations in costs of state-school clothing. Costs ranged from as little as £34 a pupil to more than £500, with an average of £108 for primary school uniforms and £126 for secondary. The inquiry found that schools were increasingly insisting on policies that required parents to buy clothing with embroidered names and logos, or branded blazers and sports kit. One parent said that “there was a trend for publicly funded schools to adopt uniforms more commonly seen at private school”. An academy school in London had introduced a new uniform costing £225 – more than double the £99 price of the old one, forcing 70 families to take out loans. An estimated one in five low-income families received no assistance. Where there was financial help, it often did not cover the full cost of the clothing.

Parents spent £400 a year on average on school meals, although many pupils from low-income families who did not qualify for free school meals because their parents were working missed lunches because they did not have enough money. It estimates that 540,000 children living in poverty do not qualify for free meals. Purchasing books, stationery and equipment cost parents an average of £60 a child. One in three poorer children said they had been priced out of taking courses such as art, music and PE because they were unable to afford the cost of materials. A third of children from the poorest families said they had fallen behind at school because they could not afford a computer or internet access, while a similar number felt they suffered academically because they could not afford course books and equipment.

Teachers’ union NASUWT said the report showed how parents were being hit by “an unacceptable tax on learning, which is hitting the poorest families the hardest”.

Meanwhile in Scotland where many students receive free university tuition students are being forced to take out record levels of debt after the Scottish government cut the grants they could claim by 40%.

Official figures show total student borrowing jumped by 69% for the last academic year up to £430m, the highest level ever, as Scottish ministers championed their policy of providing free university tuition.

The heaviest burden is being carried by the poorest students after ministers cut overall spending on grants for living costs from £53m to £36m last year, and introduced far less generous funding bands which penalised low income applications. The average loans taken out by students from the lowest income families averaged out at £5,610 a year, compared to £4,340 for students from better off homes, said Lucy Blackburn Hunter, a former civil servant who specialises in higher education policy. Blackburn Hunter said that the cumulative impact of those policies meant that Scottish students doing a typical four year Scottish university course would end up owing more than £20,000, while the poorest faced the heaviest debts.

European data last week also showed that Scotland has the least generous student grants of any comparable west European country, including other parts of the UK. Only Greece, Turkey and most of eastern Europe have lower state grants, while Iceland is alone in offering no grants at all.

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