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Help with school costs

About this information

In this information, we talk about local education authorities. In Northern Ireland, these are called Education and Library Boards (ELBs). We use the word 'parent' to include both parents, or the pupil’s guardian, or another person who has parental responsibility for the child.

School costs survey

Citizens Advice wants to know more about the costs associated with children’s education. We are asking parents and guardians to fill out a survey based on the financial costs of one child for this school year. If you have a child in your care who will be attending school next term, please help us.

Take our survey

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Who is eligible for financial help

As a parent, you may be entitled to certain types of financial help, depending on your financial circumstances. In some circumstances, financial help will be dependent on whether your child is of compulsory school age. In other cases, it will depend on what type of school your child is attending.

Examples of financial help include:

  • free school meals
  • school milk
  • school clothing
  • school transport
  • visiting a pupil at a maintained special school.

For more information about different types of school, see Types of school.

For more information about what is compulsory school age, see under heading Compulsory school age in Access to education.

For more information about help with the costs of education for students aged under 19 in England, see Education from 14 – 19 in England or, in Wales, Education choices at 16 in Wales.

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Who may give financial help

The following organisations may give financial help:

  • local education authorities
  • governing bodies/parents’ associations
  • charities.

Local education authority

Local education authorities must give you written information about what help they give with education costs, the criteria for getting this help and how you can apply. The local education authority which covers the area where the pupil usually lives is responsible for helping with the costs of education. However, if the child is not permanently settled anywhere, for example, they are part of the Taveller community or a refugee in temporary accommodation, the local education authority which covers the area where the pupil is currently living is responsible for helping with the costs of education.

Governing bodies/parents’ associations

Governing bodies or parents’ associations may give financial help. If they do, they will usually publicise this in the information they give to parents about the school. You can find out what help is available from the parents’ association or the head teacher.

Charities

Some charities give grants to parents to help with the costs of education. These charities often have a limited amount of money to give and usually have very specific criteria which must be met in order to get a grant. Although the criteria vary widely, some common examples could be that parents live in a particular area or belong to a particular religion.

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How to apply for help

You can apply for help whenever you think you may be eligible. However, if the help you are applying for is discretionary, the amount of money available for the year may be limited and you should apply early in the year if possible. If you have made a previous, unsuccessful application, you may become eligible if your circumstances change.

The policies of local education authorities and governing bodies on how they provide discretionary help vary widely. However, it is against the law to discriminate against you because of your race, sex, sexuality, disability or religion when they draw up their policies.

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Free school meals

In England and Wales, local education authority maintained schools must provide a free midday meal to pupils if they or their parents receive:

  • income-based Jobseekers Allowance
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • Income Support
  • Universal Credit
  • the guarantee part of Pension Credit
  • support for asylum seekers under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • Child Tax Credit, but only if they are not also getting Working tax Credit (WTC) and their income is below a certain amount. However, if they are in the four week run-on period for WTC after stopping work or reducing working hours, then they may be eligible for free school meals.

There are special rules which apply if you are a foster carer and you should check with your local authority.

For more information about fostering in England and Wales, see Children and local authority care

Local education authorities are also required to provide a midday meal free of charge to pupils attending special schools who are designated to require a special diet and/or are boarders.

Pupils getting free meals may not always get the same meals as those paying in full. In cafeteria systems, pupils entitled to free school meals can choose food up to a certain fixed cost.

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School milk

Local education authority maintained schools may provide subsidised milk to pupils. You must pay for it unless you are entitled to free school meals, when it should be free of charge. Free school milk may be available to children under five if the school takes part in such schemes. In Wales, Key Stage 1 pupils are entitled to free school milk.

In all other schools and colleges, the governing body may decide to provide milk but may charge if they do so.

In Northern Ireland, local education authorities have to provide free school milk for:

  • all special school pupils
  • pupils in schools where school meals are not provided
  • pupils with a medical certificate stating that milk is a necessary part of their diet.

Milk is also available at a charge to pupils who do not qualify for free milk.

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School clothing

In England and Wales, local education authorities have discretion to give help with the cost of school clothing for pupils in maintained schools, colleges for further education and sixth form colleges.  This can include uniform and non-uniform clothes, shoes and sports kit.  In some schools and colleges, help may be available from the governing body or parents’ association.

Local education authorities vary widely in their policies on who can get help and what items they will give help for. To find out what the policy is in your area, check with your local authority.

Some local education authorities restrict help to school uniform only, some pay a one-off grant when the pupil starts school while others pay regular grants as the pupil grows and needs new clothing. Some local education authorities give the help as cash grants, while others give vouchers to be used at local shops and others give actual items of clothing.

Some local education authorities have a policy of not giving financial help to buy school uniforms because pupils are not legally required to wear a school uniform. This is more likely to be the case with primary school pupils. If your school's policy is for pupils to wear uniforms and you cannot afford to buy one, you may have to challenge the local education authority.

Citizens Advice is campaigning to encourage more parents to challenge local authorities that refuse to consider requests for grants.

If you're interested in taking part in the campaign, you can do this by telling us about your experiences or getting involved in local activities. You can find out more by going to our website at: www.citizensadvice.org.uk . Or email: adrian.galvin@citizensadvice.org.uk.

For more information about challenging the local education authority, see The general procedures for dealing with a problem at school in Problems at school.

Some school governing bodies or parents’ associations give help with school clothing. This help is usually provided by the school keeping a stock of second-hand clothing which it gives to pupils who fall within its criteria for help, or by running a second-hand uniform shop where the clothing can be bought cheaply by any parent.

If you get income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support or Pension Credit, it may be possible to get an interest-free budgeting loan from the social fund to help with the cost of school clothing.

For more information about getting a budgeting loan for clothing, see Help for people on a low income – the Social Fund.

In Wales, a one-off grant of £105 is available to pupils entering secondary school who are eligible for free school meals – see under heading Free school meals. The grant is also available to pupils in Wales who are aged 11 and are in special schools, special needs resource bases and pupil referral units who are eligible for free school meals – see under heading Free school meals. You will be able to get this grant on top of any other help you get, for example, from your local education authority. Eligible pupils who live in Wales can claim the grant even if they attend schools across the border in England. The grant is not payable to children living in England but attending schools in Wales.

Uniform grants in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, Education and Library Boards pay a uniform grant to pupils who attend a primary, secondary, grammar or special school.

A grant is available to pupils if their parent or guardian gets one of the following:

  • Income Support
  • income based Jobseeker's Allowance
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • the guarantee credit part of Pension Credit
  • support by the National Asylum support Service (NASS)
  • Child Tax Credit and their income is below a certain amount
  • Working Tax Credit and their income is below a certain amount and the pupil was born on or after 2 July 2000.

You can get more information on how to apply and rates of current grants from the nidirect website www.nidirect.org.uk.

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School transport

Local education authorities must provide transport where they consider it necessary to ensure that a child gets to the nearest suitable school. The school could be in a different local authority area or an independent school.

If transport is necessary, it must be provided free of charge.

Who qualifies for free school transport

In most cases, it's up to the local education authority to decide what transport is necessary. Entitlement should be based on a child's individual needs.

The facts which the local education authority must take into account when making a decision include the age of the pupil, the nature of the available routes, how long the pupil has to wait for public transport and whether the pupil has particular medical or mobility needs.

Your child will be automatically entitled to free transport if they:

  • are between five and 16 years old, and
  • attend the nearest suitable school, and
  • the school is further away than statutory walking distance.

In England, pupils between 11 and 16 from low-income families are also entitled to free transport if:

  • they attend any one of the three nearest suitable schools, and
  • the school is between two and six miles from their home (or up to 15 miles away if this is the nearest school which is suitable because of religion or belief).

In Wales, primary school pupils who live more than two miles from the nearest qualifying school will be eligible for free transport.

Statutory walking distance

Statutory walking distance in England is:

  • two miles for pupils aged up to eight
  • two miles for pupils aged between eight and eleven from low-income families
  • three miles for pupils aged eight or more who are not from low-income families.

Statutory walking distance in Wales is:

  • two miles for children in primary school
  • three miles for children in secondary school.

Statutory walking distance in Northern Ireland is:

  • two miles for primary school pupils
  • three miles for post primary school pupils.

Statutory walking distance is measured by the shortest route a child, accompanied if necessary, can walk with reasonable safety. If there is no such route, the local authority must provide free transport no matter what distance you live from the school.

Local education authorities do not have to provide free transport to a school which is beyond statutory walking distance, if the local education authority considers that there is a nearer suitable school. However, local education authorities may provide free transport for a pupil who is beyond statutory walking distance, even if there is a nearer school available. This help may be limited to those who have a good reason for choosing a more distant school, for example, a Catholic student wishing to attend a Catholic school or a student from a non-religious background who wants to attend a secular school.

For more information about types of school, see Types of school.

Low-income families

A low-income family is one where the children are entitled to free school meals, or where the family gets the maximum level of Working Tax Credit.

For more information about free school meals, see under heading Free school meals.

For more information about Working Tax Credit, see Benefits and tax credits for people in work.

What type of transport is provided

The local education authority or governing body will either provide its own transport, hire coaches or provide free bus or train passes for use on public transport. A travelling allowance may be paid to pupils who provide their own transport, for example, a cycle allowance. A car allowance may be paid to you if you take your child to school or to a pick-up point agreed by the local education authority. Pupils who do not qualify for free transport may be allowed to travel on spare seats on school buses and a charge can be made for this.

If a local education authority has a duty to provide free transport, it must provide that transport for the whole journey. This is usually taken to mean from the bus stop, railway station or pick-up point nearest to the pupil’s home to the one nearest the school. The local education authority cannot simply pay the travelling costs from the bus stop, railway station or pick-up point nearest to the pupil’s home to a stop just within walking distance of school.

What help is available if your child doesn't qualify for free school transport

If you cannot persuade the local education authority to provide free transport for your child, the local education authority may be willing to pay part of the travelling costs under its discretionary powers.

A pupil who has an assisted place at an independent school can get help from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) if their parent’s income is below a certain amount.

Local education authority transport duties and powers apply to city technology colleges (CTCs). The governing body of a CTC may provide transport, but may expect a student to apply to the local education authority first.

For more information about what is a CTC, see Types of school.

If you feel that your child has been unfairly refused help with transport to schools or colleges, you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on the nearest CAB.

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Visiting a pupil at a maintained special school (England and Wales only)

Local education authorities have the discretion to pay all or some of the travel costs of a parent visiting a pupil who boards at a maintained special school which is some way from the home. A letter of support may be needed from a doctor, social worker or teacher. There may be a limit to the number of visits for which the local education authority will pay.

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Education Maintenance Allowance

IIf you're aged 16-18 and staying on at school or college, you may be able to get Educational Maintenance Allowance. In England, Education Maintenance Allowance was closed to new applicants from 1 January 2011. However, if you're English but studying in Northern Ireland or Scotland, you may qualify for EMA in the country where you're studying.

In Wales, to be eligible for Educational Maintenance Allowance, you must be resident in Wales. If you count as resident in Wales, you will be eligible even if you are at school or college in England.

In England, for more information about Education Maintenance Allowance, see Financial help for students aged 16-19.

In Wales, for more information about Education Maintenance Allowance, see the website of Student Finance Wales at www.studentfinancewales.

In Northern Ireland, for more information about the Education Maintenance Allowance, see www.delni.gov.uk.

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Grants for other needs

Local education authorities have a very wide discretion to make grants to enable pupils in maintained schools to take advantage of the educational facilities available to them without causing hardship to their families. However, the amount of money a local education authority has available for these grants is likely to be limited. Grants will be given only for activities or items which are not part of the school curriculum, for example, a grant may be given for travelling costs to attend an interview or towards the costs of a musical instrument.

For more information on what schools may or may not charge for, see Problems at school.

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