The True Cost of School

The Financial Struggles Faced by Families

Education is often considered a fundamental right for children worldwide. However, the true cost of sending children to school can be a significant burden on families, particularly in the UK. According to a Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) report in May 2023, families face various expenses associated with their children’s education, including school uniforms, meals, extracurricular activities and trips. These additional costs, combined with the rising cost of living, can stretch both school and parents’ budgets, making it challenging for the vast majority of children to access a rich and fulfilling education during the academic year.

What is the true cost of education per child in the UK?

The CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) report highlights the financial strain that families experience when sending their children to school. In their report, CPAG states: ‘Researchers have found that going to school in the UK costs families of primary school children at least £864.87 a year, or £18.69 a week. This is before childcare costs are accounted for. For families of secondary school children, the cost of sending a child to school is at least £1,755.97 a year. This is £39.01 a week. This means the total cost of meeting a child’s minimum educational needs across all 14 years of school (primary and secondary but excluding household costs such as laptops) is £18,345.85. This can be broken down as £6,054.09 for seven years at primary school and £12,291.76 for seven years at secondary school.

The amount families and parents spend on sending their children to school has dramatically increased over the past five years with the true cost of school leading to increased pressure on not only parents but schools and local authorities too. Particularly with class sizes growing year on year and price increases set to continue, the department for education in the UK needs to focus on how it can support schools, teachers and parents with the increased costs.’

Factors Contributing to Costs

Graduation hat on coins money in the glass bottle on natural green background, Saving money for education

Several factors significantly contribute to the overall cost of sending children to school, impacting not only parents but also teachers, local authorities, and government bodies. These costs encompass various aspects, which we have listed below.

School Uniforms

One of the biggest costs to parents is school uniforms, which can be a significant expense for families on a tight budget. Schools often have strict uniform policies, requiring specific items, such as blazers that need to be purchased from designated suppliers. These specific shops charge significantly more money for pupils’ uniforms compared to supermarkets which make basic school uniforms. Now this is a bug bearer for all parents regardless of if they send their children to a private school or a state school.

Parents surveyed by the charity ‘The Children’s Society’ claim they are spending an average £422 a year on secondary and £287 on primary uniforms, with branded items costing more. Which is a huge difference compared to supermarket uniforms costing 

anywhere from £10 – £30 at the very most. These expenses can be burdensome for families, especially if multiple children attend the same school in different year groups.

School Meals

School dinners are another financial consideration for parents whether they are paying for school meals or preparing packed lunches for their children. There is a cost. Some families may struggle to afford the cost of school meals or packed lunches, leading to added pressure on their budgets.

The cost of school meals, including packed lunches, is a topic that impacts many schools and local authorities in the UK. While packed lunches offer flexibility and personal choice, the annual cost can add up for families, for example, the average food bill for a family of four can be between £500 – £700 a month. To support those in need, the UK government implemented the free school meals program within the state system. This initiative aims to alleviate financial burdens by providing eligible students with nutritious meals at no cost. The program not only supports families but also ensures that kids have access to healthy meals during the school day, promoting and supporting their overall well-being and school experience.

School Trips

Part of the school experience is for pupils to go out on school trips and excursions whether locally or internationally, but these experiences often come with additional expenses for a parents budget. These valuable childhood experiences provide children and young people with hands-on learning opportunities that extend beyond the classroom, exposing them to new environments, cultures, and experiences.

By enriching their educational journey, school trips foster a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of the world around them. Despite the costs involved, school trips offer unique opportunities that enhance a child’s education and personal growth. To make these experiences accessible, schools can offer assistance to parents through payment plans allowing them to pay a certain amount each month spreading the cost.

Teacher and students on field trip in woods

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities like sports clubs and after-school clubs can impose an additional financial burden on families and parents. These activities often require sports equipment,  club fees and additional materials, adding to the overall cost of a child’s education.

However, many parents and teachers would argue that the benefits of participating in these after-school activities are very valuable for the children’s social skills, physical fitness, and personal development, making it worthwhile. 

To ensure equal access for all pupils, schools and local authorities must prioritise affordable options and scholarships for extracurricular activities. This can be achieved through partnerships with community organisations, negotiating discounts, and establishing transparent scholarship programs.

By fostering inclusivity and reducing financial barriers, every child can benefit from these valuable opportunities.

Social Mobility

In the UK, rising petrol prices have added to the financial burden for parents. With the increasing cost of fuel, commuting expenses have escalated, affecting families across the country. Parents who drive their children to school face higher petrol costs, particularly if they send their children to different schools or the kids are in, impacting their overall budget. Similarly, relying on school buses can still incur fees that add up over time.

As transportation expenses continue to rise, it becomes crucial for families to explore cost-saving alternatives such as carpooling, public transport, or considering walking or cycling options when feasible. By finding creative solutions and actively addressing these challenges, families can ease the financial strain associated with school transportation and allocate their resources more effectively.

Summer Holidays

The summer holidays can be a financially challenging time with additional costs for parents who are struggling to afford basic needs. With the absence of school routines, expenses for childcare and kids’ activities the pressure to keep up with the social expectations to go abroad for a holiday is a lot for some families.

Many parents express frustration when planning holidays, particularly during school breaks. The higher costs associated with trips abroad during these peak periods make it challenging to find affordable options that fit within their budget and offer value for money. This situation creates pressure on parents to provide their children with memorable holiday experiences whilst dealing with rising costs and smaller budgets.

One way to save money is to keep the family holiday staycation in the UK and explore nearby destinations and enjoy memorable experiences without breaking the bank. Embrace the great outdoors with free or low-cost activities like picnics, hiking, beach trips, and camping adventures. Keep the kids active, engaged, and having a blast all summer long. Click here for more cost-effective ways to save money during the holidays.

The Impact on Disadvantaged Students

The financial strain of sending children to school disproportionately affects families already facing socio-economic disadvantages. These families may struggle to provide their children with the necessary resources and experiences that enhance their education. The cost of uniforms, meals, and educational trips can create a barrier, preventing these students from fully participating and benefiting from their educational journey.

Private School Education

Private schools in the UK have witnessed a steady increase in fees over the past five years. According to recent statistics, average private school fees have risen by approximately 5.1%, which means parents spend £20,480 a year, or £6,827 a term for day pupils, and £34,790 a year or £11,597 a term for boarders.

These escalating costs pose financial challenges for families wanting a premium education for their children. While the exact figures may vary among private schools in the UK, it is important to consider additional expenses such as uniforms, extracurricular activities, and transportation, which further impact the overall cost.

As a result, families who want to pay for private education must carefully assess their budget and explore available financial aid or scholarship options (which are usually based on exam results) to make informed decisions regarding their child’s education.

Addressing Social Inequality

In response to these challenges, Sean Harris, in his article for SecEd, suggests a model of the “3 Cs” that schools and teachers in the UK can adopt to address the impact of disadvantage within their communities. The model emphasizes three key areas: classroom, culture, and children.

1. Classroom:

Schools can implement strategies to ensure equal access to education within the classroom. This includes providing resources such as textbooks, stationery, and digital devices to students who cannot afford them. Schools can also offer support services with a focus on providing additional learning opportunities for kids, such as free tutoring or mentoring programs, to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds thrive academically.

2. Culture:

Creating an inclusive and supportive school culture is essential for addressing social inequality. Schools can implement policies that promote diversity, equality, and respect for all students. This includes challenging stereotypes, fostering a sense of belonging, and providing a safe and nurturing environment.

3. Children:

Recognizing and responding to the individual needs of each student is crucial. Schools can implement targeted interventions to support vulnerable students, including those from low-income backgrounds. This might involve providing additional emotional support, offering free or subsidized meals, or organizing bursaries and scholarships to ensure equal access to educational opportunities.


The true cost of sending children to school extends beyond tuition fees and textbooks. Families face numerous additional expenses and increased costs, which can strain their budgets and create barriers to accessing quality education. Schools, local authorities and the government must be aware of these challenges and strive to create an environment where all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, have equal opportunities to learn and succeed.

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