Cost of kit for school has doubled since 1980s
Parents feel financial strain
Thousands of Northern Ireland parents face back-to-school costs that have more than doubled since the 1980s, it has emerged.
New research has shown that the price of equipping an average child for study will have hit the £550 mark come September.
But the staggering figure – which takes into account uniforms, stationary and gadgets like iPads and mobile phones – could only be the tip of the iceberg.
With the average child costing £550.80, families with more than one school-age sibling could find themselves paying exorbitant bills.
By comparison, the parents of children starting school in the 1980s paid £252.40, while those in the 1960s paid the modern day equivalent of £231.20.
Education Committee chair Mervyn Storey said he was concerned that today's 'must-have-culture' was driving up costs to this level for parents. He said: "There's a belief that you're not part of the in-crowd if you don't have an iPad or a smartphone or a particular pair of trainers.
"It's already a financial burden on parents to provide the essentials without all these extras – and I'm speaking as a parent of three children.
"There are times when you just have to say no because it's not a necessity and the money has to be spent on things that are priorities."
The research – carried out by department store John Lewis – comes at a time when the cost of living has never been higher for stretched middle-income families affected by soaring living costs and capped salaries.
It also follows the publication of a recent study that revealed it is more expensive to raise a child in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK. Drilling down into specifics, modern parents spend an average of £19.70 on satchels, £362.10 on smartphones and £14 on stationary.
Uniforms can then increase the bill by a massive £100 depending on the choice of school, before factoring in shoes and sportswear.
Prices for school clothes and sports kits vary considerably because they are governed by just guidelines, not regulated.
Mr Storey said something must be done to reduce the cost imposed by schools on uniforms, which he said have become "a status symbol".
"Uniforms have become as much part of the kudos of the school as the academic outcome and unfortunately there are some parents who believe that if they're able to get a particular blazer on their child then that will change the child's education or fortune which I think is a mistaken way to evaluate and assess the best education opportunities for your child," he said.
"Schools need to seriously look at what they are requiring as being an essential for children to be properly kitted out.
"For some schools you can only get certain things out of certain shops and that is creating a lucrative cartel.
"I'm sure a white shirt out of a supermarket might do the same job as a more expensive alternative particularly as young kids grow so much."
A mother-of-three, who asked not to be named, said she had little change out of £700 after kitting out her children, aged three, nine and 15.
"A normal uniform and PE kit costs upwards of £400 before you add in the cost of fees, shoes or anything else," she said.
David Crawford Schoolwear based in Newtownards supplies 90 nursery, primary, secondary and grammar schools.
Owner Mr Crawford said he offers deals for £25 on primary school uniforms, £60 on secondary and around £100 on uniforms for grammars.
"This year parents have been telling me that money is definitely a lot tighter and they've been holding off until the last minute," he said.
"Spending on school uniforms is now like buying gas or fuel for the car – people are leaving it until it's absolutely necessary."
The research also found that almost half of all secondary school children now take a smartphone to school, as do a growing number of primary children.
'The expense is all worth it'
Many families are feeling the pinch at this time of year as children all head back to school.
Ian O'Hare and wife Clare from Belfast are getting ready to send their two boys, Dermot (17) and Conall (12), back next week.
"Blazers are a big part of the cost. I bought Dermot and Conall two pairs of trousers and a new blazer each. That was £96," Ian said.
"The PE kits are quite expensive.
"They also need a new PE bag, stationary, school bag and they usually want branded ones which can be more expensive.
"Conall is going into his first year at secondary school and will hopefully play football, Gaelic and basketball. For football he'll need special shoes for the 3G pitch," he added.
Transport is another cost that varies from family to family with buses and petrol to be added in if the pupil needs to travel far, though some do get bus passes.
While a lot of money is required parents always do their best. Ian said: "School can be expensive but it's an investment in the end, and it's all worth it."
'More pressure now'
Charity worker Gillian Rainey (46), from Belfast, and her husband have two boys – Harry (13), a Year 10 pupil at Sullivan Upper, and 12-year-old Tom, who is starting the same grammar school his older brother attends.
Mrs Rainey said: "It costs over £500 to send each of the boys to school – and I've noticed that it's getting more expensive every year. The sports gear, which you have to buy from the school, is £150 alone.
"Then the actual uniforms themselves come in at just under £200 each but there's all the other costs to consider such as shoes, schoolbags, pencil cases, scientific calculators, maths sets etc.
"School trips have to be factored in too.
"I make packed lunches for them but they eat at the school bistro on Fridays.
"We also pay for their bus passes at £27 a month each.
"Parents are probably under more pressure today than they would have been in the past when it comes things like mobile phones.
"My husband and I definitely find ourselves putting the boys first and making decisions around them when it comes to our budget.
"I don't know how some people with three or four kids manage.
"We're not rich, but we're not poor and it is really tough."