Hidden costs in education system impact on Scotland’s poorest families

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secondary school students in school uniform

Hidden costs in the Scottish education system – such as school trips and uniform - are impacting on children and families living in poverty, a University of Stirling report has found.

Instead of preventing and mitigating poverty, inclusion in the education system privileges the better-off and brings costs that are often unseen and misunderstood by educators - particularly at secondary school level - report author Dr Morag Treanor found.

The study, Falling through the cracks: the cost of the school day for families living in in-work and out-of-work poverty, looked at how the costs of the school day are experienced and managed by low-income parents, and how this impacts on their wider financial situation and vulnerability.  

“There is much that has been done to facilitate poorer children’s participation in school-related activities; however, there is more that can be done,” said Dr Treanor. “Research shows that children are acutely aware of the deprivations they experience in relation to school.

“The research shows that parents are also aware of children’s school-related privations and do their best to prevent and mitigate the negative impacts.”


head shot of morag treanor
Dr Morag Treanor
Senior lecturer in Sociology
There is much that has been done to facilitate poorer children’s participation in school-related activities; however, there is more that can be done.

The report, published by Scottish Affairs, acknowledges the positive change made by the Scottish Government in May 2018, when it standardised the school clothing grant at £100 and required all local authorities to pay this amount.

However, the research found that the eligibility criteria and application process varies across the country, with families in one local authority required to fill out a 16-page form and present nine forms of documentary evidence, and a number of authorities withholding the grant from pupils aged over 16 in receipt of a means-tested Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

The study found that difficulties in affording school uniforms - and particularly shoes - is a constant feature of life for low-income families in work, who are not entitled to school clothing grants (SCG). However, this is also true for those living in out-of-work poverty and receiving a grant - because it does not cover the full cost of a school uniform, estimated at £129.50.

School trips were another issue for low-income families, because while these are subsidised for those on out-of-work benefits, there is no subsidy for those receiving at-work benefits – unless this is provided by the Parent Council or Parent/Teacher Association.

In addition, parents often struggle to meet the payment deadline, because of the short period of time between receiving information about a trip and money being due.

Working families on low incomes, whose children are not entitled to free school meals, also struggle to pay for school lunches, while those in receipt of free school meals can feel stigmatised because they have to eat in the dining room instead of with their friends outside of school.

The report recommended that local authorities impose a maximum limit for the cost of school trips; issue guidance to schools encouraging them to allow more time for paying for activities; and use pupil equity funds to ensure inclusion of all pupils in school trips and activities.

It said teachers should be offered continuing professional development on the nature, causes and consequences of poverty, similar to the City of Edinburgh’s 1-in-5 project and Glasgow City Council’s Cost of the School Day project – two initiatives aimed at mitigating the effects of poverty on children’s full participation in education.

It also called for the practice of withholding clothing grants from pupils on an Educational Maintenance Allowance, to be stopped.

Background information

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