The conclusions of a ground-breaking study into the effects of Covid-19 on families says: “Families are not uniform; it is simply unacceptable that they are being driven into debt, or to chose between blazers and heating, in today’s Britain.”

The major study into the effects of Covid 19 on low-income families by York University and Birmingham University in partnership with Child Poverty Action Group has found that the cost of school uniform is a key source of financial and emotional stress for families.

Covid Realities, a country-wide participatory research programme looked at experiences of families on a low income during the pandemic; it was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Through this research, working directly with parents and carers it was hoped to understand the impact of Covid-19 on families’ day-to-day lives.

The project was set up to better understand the struggles of daily life for low-income families, and help policymakers make the right decisions.

The Covid Realities report said: “The lockdown has seen the closure of businesses, local services and schools, causing serious economic hardship and stress. This crisis affects everyone, but some more than others. We know that people in low-income communities are more likely to become unwell. We know that BAME communities have a higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19.”

The report continues: “We also know that families living with children, and carers of children, face particular challenges, especially when they are trying to get by on low incomes.”

Project lead and lecturer in social policy at University of York, Dr Ruth Patrick said: “The research had a really broad remit looking at the experience of families. Because people were filling in online diaries things came up that we were not anticipating”. Dr Patrick added: “We got a lot of diary entries with people who were really worried about the cost of school uniform and how people would meet the addition cost.”

The study found that school uniform costs are a serious source of financial and emotional stress for families living on a low-income across the UK.

Through the Nuffield Foundation funded research programme, parents have been working in partnership with researchers to document their experiences of everyday life in the pandemic, sharing diary entries online and taking part in online activities and virtual discussion groups.

One parent who took part in the study said that she was on Universal Credit and told the researchers that the annual uniform cost for her child was £390 per year not including school shoes and trainers. The £75 grant received from the local authority to put towards school uniform covered the cost of one jumper and one P.E. top. The parent referred to the spiralling cost of uniform for parents, citing last year when her child’s school chose to move away from a plain £5.00 P.E. tops and instead use a sports logo company increasing the cost of one top to £17.99.

The covid restrictions have forced some schools to change uniform requirements at the last minute. One school is reported to have given two days’ notice to move to joggers and trainers which has meant an unexpected additional cost for parents.

Family budgets stretched to breaking point during Covid a major study finds.

The final report focuses on the cost of school uniforms; setting out how, for many families, uniforms represent a financial burden that tip precariously balanced budgets firmly into the red. This is the case at any time, but especially in Covid times, when mechanisms for managing on a low-income have all too often become impossible.

In the case of school uniforms, school uniform banks have become widely depleted or temporarily shut, charity shops have closed, and getting hand-me-downs from friends and family has been made widely impossible by lockdown restrictions.

The report describes families’ experiences and provides recommendations for policy change, saying: “We conclude by setting out best practice for schools on uniform, while also calling on the government to urgently target families with children for more financial support.”

In England, the government are currently debating a bill which could set statutory guidance on the maximum cost of school uniform. The bill has been broadly welcomed by Covid Realities and other child poverty charities.

A parent said: “Politicians must be made to understand the real problems many families face between eating a healthy diet and being able to switch on the heating in in order to keep warm in the winter. My daughter is in need of school uniform, but this means cutting back on other essential items to afford the cost”.

The Department of Work and Pensions have said “that no school uniform should be so expensive that it leaves pupils and families unable to apply for their preferred school.”

Dr Patrick said: “This issue predates the pandemic, parents were having difficulties affording school uniform when it is as expensive as it was, it is even worse in these pandemic times”.

Dr Patrick points toward the insecurities and anxieties for parents as their children return to school and is concerned about the effects these additional financial worries surrounding school uniform will have. She said: “These multiple worries will ultimately have a negative effect on people’s mental health.”