Belfast Telegraph

Third of Northern Ireland families plunge into debt as they pay £1,000 a child in back-to-school costs

More than a third of Northern Ireland families are getting into debt over back-to-school costs. (stock photo)
Ralph Hewitt

By Ralph Hewitt

More than a third of Northern Ireland families are getting into debt over back-to-school costs.

The figures, released by the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU), revealed that 73% of parents said the back-to-school spend is a financial burden, while two-thirds say schools are not doing enough to keep costs down.

Jacquie White from the Ulster Teachers' Union said that as school budgets are stretched further, students are having to provide their own materials in subjects such as art and technology, which can "run to over £1,000 a year per child".

Based on prices provided to the Belfast Telegraph by John Paul Fashions in Limavady, it can cost a parent at least £175.75 to kit their child out in the necessary Limavady High School gear.

This includes school blazer, trousers, two shirts, school tie, shoes and school bag, as well as PE shorts and T-shirt and a school rugby top.

The most expensive item on the list is the blazer, at £39.99, although the Kukri rugby top is only 99p cheaper.

The schoolwear supplier also provides a full primary school tracksuit (polo shirt, sweatshirt and jogging bottoms) for anything between £25.99 and £29.99, depending on size, but that is a special offer.

Parents say they are spending an astonishing £776 per child at primary school level and it costs £1,067 per child at secondary level.

These figures include not only school uniforms, but also lunches, school trips etc.

The ILCU survey says that the primary school spend has increased by £22 since last year, while the secondary school spend dropped by £93 as parents drastically cut back on school trips.

Parents of primary school children say their average back-to-school-related debt is £178, down £74 from £252 last year.

At secondary level there has been a more substantial decrease in debt, falling £93 from £291 last year to £198 this year.

Of those parents in debt, over one-third (35%) have used a doorstep lender or payday loan company to help cover the costs.

The ILCU surveyed 406 people, and 269 parents of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland responded.

Worryingly, a quarter of parents say they cannot afford new school shoes for their children, while four in 10 say new PE gear will get the cut.

There also appears to be a more cautious approach with spending on non-essential items, with a substantial reduction in spending on school trips.

This has fallen from £220 to £161, while spending on extracurricular activities has also decreased, from £127 to £116.

Commenting on the figures, the general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, Jacquie White, explained that as well as all of the back-to-school costs parents are already facing, some schools ask for 'voluntary contributions' and these can also run into hundreds of pounds.

"The result is that more economically disadvantaged pupils can miss out or feel stigmatised and may not feel they can afford the school or subject choices they really want," said Ms White.

"If the impact of school costs is leading to children feeling embarrassed, bullied and excluded because they cannot afford the same things as their peers, then something must be done to reinstate equality.

"All our children deserve the same access to a quality education - indeed the disparity in achievement between socially disadvantaged children and their more affluent contemporaries is something which remains to be tackled."

Almost 70% of parents say that Northern Ireland schools are not doing enough to keep costs down. This is up 62% from last year.

When asked how schools could do more to help parents, 31% said the option of generic, cheaper or even free school uniforms should be available.

Meanwhile, another 16% said reducing the prices of books and stationery would go a long way to helping their budget.

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