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Back to school – The pressures facing low income families

September 5th 2019

September 2019 has started with a bang. With the UK Government losing its majority and talk of a general election it is easy to forget that there is a real world outside Westminster. Up and down Wales thousands of children have this week started a new school year. Whilst for many families, this will be an exiting time, for others, the start of the school year is likely to be met with fear and dread.

Off the back of an expensive summer break the start of the new school term can be a real struggle for many families, with school uniform needing to be bought and other activities such as football training, swimming lessons and dance classes restarting. To combat these challenges the Welsh Government fund two schemes that provide support to low income families:

  • Free School Meals
  • Pupil Development Grant – Access (PDG – Access) a grant to support low income parents with children entering Reception, Year 3, Year 7 and Year 10 to buy school uniform and kit for extracurricular activities.

The Bevan Foundation has previously highlighted the limitations of both of these schemes. There are approximately 55,000 children living in poverty not eligible for support under either scheme because their parents are not poor enough. Whilst it is not just families with children entering Reception, Year 3, Year 7 and Year 10 that need to buy a school uniform with most families having to purchase some new items every year due to wear and tear or simply because their children have grown.  Despite these the schemes do provide vital support for thousands of families.

Whilst it’s the Welsh Government that sets the overall policy direction for these schemes, it is local authorities that administer them on their behalf.  This summer the we have have been undertaking work on our research project on “support schemes for low income families in Wales”. Through this we encountered evidence that there were quite significant variations between authorities as to how this was done.

Overall, we found that most local authorities were administrating the schemes well with some examples of excellent, innovative practice. This included automatically providing Free School Meals and PDG – Access to children whose families receive housing benefit or council tax reduction, and the provision of extra support to help families purchase school uniforms when children were entering years not covered by PDG – Access.

We did find that some authorities, however, were falling short of expectations. Many local authorities provide families with an opportunity to apply for assistance online, but, this was not the case everywhere with some authorities requiring families to submit multiple applications by post. At other authorities, the information available online was not always accurate, whilst it took a long time to get through to some by phone.

Perhaps of greatest concern, however, was our finding that some authorities provide PDG – Access support in arrears. Families living in these authority areas are at a significant disadvantage compared with families living in areas where support is provided in advance. Payment in arrears risks families facing real hardship having to purchase uniforms ahead of being reimbursed, and some may end up in debt through doing so.

Today the Bevan Foundation has published a new report setting out its findings. You can download your copy here. We have also published a new infographic, setting out what you can do to ensure that all children in your area are provided with the best quality support.

Dr Steffan Evans is a Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation. To find out more about how you can support the Bevan Foundation in our work click here

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