AS children scrambled through the school gates throughout Oxfordshire this morning, they were probably not thinking too hard about the year ahead.
But with curriculum changes, exams and the struggle for school places increasing, the years ahead will be a challenge for parents and school leaders.
Even getting a child in to class costs more than it used to, with prices of school uniform and stationery essentials going up year on year.
Figures by payday lending company Lending Stream show that over a child’s school career parents will spend about £6,694 for clothes, stationery and lost and damaged property.
Adding up the cost of trips, school fetes and sports, the firm says this costs parents an extra £446 per year, with stationery costing £111 a year.
And it is not only parents’ money being stretched more thinly.
From this year, all children under the age of seven will be eligible for a free hot meal at school.
Previously this was limited to children of parents on benefits or earning less than £16,190 a year, and the change is expected to boost numbers eating free meals from about 9,500 to an expected 22,215.
Schools across the county have had to be kitted out with new kitchen equipment and new cooking facilities.
In July, Conservative schools minister David Laws said the policy will “make a huge difference to family budgets in these hard times”.
He said pilot studies found “children were less likely to eat crisps and unhealthy packed lunches during the school day, and more likely to eat healthy food instead”.
He said: “Most importantly, there was a positive impact on children’s levels of literacy and numeracy.”
The Government gave Oxfordshire County Council £1.47m to help, yet cash-strapped council leaders have warned it faces a £300,000 to £500,000 shortfall.
Last month headteacher Lynn Knapp, from Windmill Primary School, Headington, said the £50,000 it received for its kitchen “could be better spent”.
She said: “I don’t think all of our children need to have a free school meal. It’s a huge amount of money that could be spent on things they really need.”
County council cabinet member for children, education and families Melinda Tilley said: “I think it was a stupid idea in the first place. I am so fed up with it.
“I think it is barking mad. We are feeding perfectly healthy children for free and if we could have spent it on disadvantaged children then it could have gone a lot further.”
The Conservative councillor said: “It has cost a fortune because some of the schools didn’t have kitchens, and some did but were inadequate.
“And because they have to eat in stages, it is going to disrupt the school day.”
Hard-pressed families would still be funding the programme through taxation, she said.
Another major issue is the need for extra classes because of a surge in Oxfordshire’s population, a major issue for primary schools in particular.
This year Cutteslowe Primary School, Wolvercote Primary School and St Gregory the Great Catholic School are among schools that will take extra pupils.
Mrs Tilley said: “It is bringing us a lot of problems. We have a lot more places to find and it’s causing us a lot of problems because the Government has cut back on the money.”
Birth rate figures were analysed by council officers but the influx of people into the county made planning a “headache”, she said.
These included people born abroad. The 2011 census showed Oxford’s foreign-born population rose by 67 per cent in the last decade, from 25,940 in 2001 to 43,239 in 2011.
Mrs Tilley said: “We can’t say ‘sorry son, you can’t go to school’. We have to find them a place.”
Secondary schools have enough places but the council is predicting a 12 per cent rise for new starters from 2018/19 as the increase in primary school places works its way through the system.
This means there will be 40,000 children at school that year compared to 35,910 this year.
Mrs Tilley said: “Parents should have choices, that is the most important thing.
“And the most important thing is to make all schools worthy of their choice. We need to have schools working with other schools, and we have to encourage them to do that.
“And that is what my challenge is that every single child in Oxfordshire gets a good start.”
SHOPPING LIST FOR A SCHOOL YEAR
- 2x coats: £43.56
- 2x school jumpers: £22.22
- 3x school shirts: £25.98
- 2x polo necks: £15.06
- 2x trainers/plimsolls: £28.38
- 2x sports trousers: £18.70
- 2x sports top: £19.40
- 2x school shoes: £39.52
- 1x spectacles: £6.72
- 1x watch: £6.84
- 2x school bags: £22.10
- 4x packs of socks: £30
- 2x ties: £11.28
- 2x school blazer: £23.90
- 3x school trousers: £33.48
- 2x skirts £15.08
- 2x swim suits/trunks: £15.34
- pens, pencils and other art supplies: £57.09
- calculator: £11.48
*Source of data: Lending Stream
How mother pulls rank to get family of five ready each day
FOR mum-of-five Sarah Livingstone, getting the kids back to school is a “military operation”.
The 31-year-old is mum to Josh, nine, Ella, seven, Tyler, five, and three-and-a-half-year-old twins Ruby and Megan.
With the eldest children at Bayards Hill Primary School, the twins will go to the school’s nursery with Megan in the morning and Ruby the afternoon.
Mum Sarah helps out Megan while, left to right, Ruby, Tyler, five, Josh, nine, and Ella, seven, look on
The stay-at-home mum said: “I have said since the beginning that I wanted them to go separately and not together so that they can develop their own personalities.
“We want them to be their own people. So Megan will go in the morning and then I will collect her and they will both have lunch together, and then Ruby will go in the afternoon.
“It will also give me a chance to spend some one-on-one time with each of them.
“We can go swimming, which I can’t do when there are two of them. It is like a military operation getting everyone ready for school.
“The twins are very good and try to get themselves dressed and the others will help them if they are struggling. They are very good kids.
“And we try to do some reading in the evening or homework. Things get harder if someone is poorly.”
She said she was thankful Sainsbury’s delivery driver husband Dan, 30, gets a 10 per cent discount on products like school uniforms.
The twins were given a 25 per cent of survival when they were born, with Ruby weighing 4lbs 5ozs and Megan 4lbs 13ozs.
In the womb they were monochorionic diamniotic, meaning they shared their mother’s placenta, reducing their nutritional intake.
Mrs Livingstone said: “We were told they would not live, or they would have learning difficulties. They have proved the profession wrong.”
‘Competition vital to curb uniform price’
INCREASED competition is vital to bring down school uniform costs, say a couple who have set up their own business.
Bob and Siobhan Soni set up School Couture in Bicester in 2011 after striking a deal to supply Headington School, where daughters Aoife and Daisy study.
Mrs Soni said: “Because there were so few suppliers the prices were ridiculous. But we managed to bring the price of some items down by about 40 per cent. I think we have helped keep the price point down by creating more competition.”
Mr Soni said it had been difficult for companies to supply school uniforms because they had to have a contract with the school itself if they wanted to use a logo.
Mr Soni added: “It was not one of the school’s top concerns in the past.”
Parents are “as frugal as they can be” and hand-me-downs between siblings are as common as ever, he said.
The shop stocks junior and senior uniforms for Headington School, Rye St Anthony and Wychwood School.
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