The Education Minister has been challenged to produce a plan to tackle the ‘back to school’ costs that are pushing more and more families into debt.
The call from SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan comes after it was revealed that over one third of parents had been pushed into debt as a result of costs such as shoes, gym kits and school supplies.
The figures were included in a new report from the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) last week, with some parents forking out more than £1000 to send a child to post primary school, and Mr McCrossan is now asking Minister Michelle McIlveen to do more to address the growing concerns facing more families every year.
“The statistics demonstrate the extent of the Executive’s failure to tackle the challenges facing parents, many of whom are being pushed further and further into debt simply to fund basic costs associated with their children’s education,” the West Tyrone MLA said.
“It’s unacceptable that parents across Northern Ireland are forced to spend over one thousand pounds per child simply to ensure they are properly equipped for going back to school. These costs are particularly incredulous this year, when more families will be struggling financially due to Covid-19. Parents still have not been given clarity over the upcoming academic year arrangements and so can’t properly plan for their children’s return to school and the costs associated,” he said.
“On school uniforms, Northern Ireland offers just a grant of £35 for primary and £73.50 for secondary for children on free school meals, compared to £100 in Scotland and new rules to reduce costs in England and Wales.
“There are also many parents just above the Free School Meals qualifying level who get very little support.”
“These absurd costs for parents amount to a Back-to-School Tax that hits families from working-class backgrounds hardest, worsening educational inequality.”
“Families need urgent support with these costs and it is incumbent upon Education Minister Michelle McIlveen to produce a plan to tackle these and give families the support they need and deserve.”
The Department of Education said that while the uniform grant is not in place to cover the entire cost of a school uniform, work is currently underway to review the criteria used to assess eligibility.
“The wearing of school uniforms in Northern Ireland is not governed by legislation but falls to schools to determine,” the Department said.
“The day-to-day management of schools, including school uniform policy, is a matter for school Principals, subject to any directions that might be given by the Board of Governors
“To assist schools in developing their school uniform policies, the Department of Education issued guidance.
“This guidance advises that schools should ensure that their school uniform policy is fair and reasonable, in practical and financial terms, and that schools should have regard to their duties under relevant equality and other legislation.
“The guidance also recommends that schools consult with parents and pupils when drawing up school uniform policy.”
The Department said the guidance was revised in June 2018 and all schools were written to reminding them of the importance of keeping the costs of school uniforms to a minimum. “The guidance advises schools to ensure that items are available ‘off the peg’ from a number of retail outlets so that the school uniform does not become a barrier for children from low income families attending the school,” the Department said, adding that the guidance is available on the Department website.
“The Education Authority administers the payment of school uniform grants to provide financial assistance towards the cost of school uniforms and clothing for physical education for low income families with children in primary, post primary and special schools. However, the school uniform grant is not intended to cover the full cost of a uniform, rather it is designed to assist those in need with the cost of purchase.
“There is already work underway in the Department to commence a review of the uniform grant eligibility criteria,” the Department continued.
“The purpose of the review is to ensure that uniform grants are available to support the most vulnerable children in our society and will consider the current rates of uniform grant as a contribution to the cost of school uniforms.”