How are cost-of-living pressures continuing to impact schools?

By Jenna Julius, Research Director

Friday 14 June 2024

This blog was first published in Tes on Wednesday 5 June 2024.

There has been a dramatic rise in the cost of living across England since 2021. While inflation has fallen from its peak in winter 2022, costs remain high compared to incomes and living standards are set to remain lower than pre-pandemic levels for years to come.

Today, we have published our latest report investigating how the increased cost of living, alongside wider pressures, is continuing to impact on schools. This builds on our NFER cost-of-living research, published last year i, and draws on an online survey of over 1,200 teachers and senior leaders in mainstream schools undertaken in March 2024.

High levels of pupil needs are becoming entrenched

Senior leaders, particularly in the most disadvantaged schools, continue to report that a significant proportion of pupils require additional welfare and financial support. This has only shown limited improvement since last year.  For example, senior leaders report that 25 per cent of primary and 24 per cent of secondary pupils currently need additional financial support such as subsidies for travel, IT access or books (compared to 30 per cent and 29 per cent last year respectively). In addition, primary teachers report that the share of pupils coming into schools hungry, without adequate clothing or equipment for lessons continues to increase compared to last year.

Schools and teachers continue to provide unprecedented support

In response to the high levels of pupil need, most schools continue to provide a wide range of support to pupils. As was the case in 2023, the most common support activities reported by schools include providing uniform and clothing to pupils (94 per cent of primary and 96 per cent of secondary schools), subsidising extra-curricular activities (93 and 92 per cent) and subsidising breakfasts (69 and 79 per cent). Evidence suggests that pupils whose most basic needs are not being met are less likely to attend school and successfully engage with learning. While this may go beyond schools’ statutory duties, they are on the front line, and school leaders feel compelled to step in to support pupils in need.

Teachers are also stepping in to meet the high levels of pupil welfare and wellbeing needs from their own pockets, even though many teachers have themselves been impacted by cost-of-living pressures. In particular, around a fifth of primary (19 per cent) and secondary (17 per cent) teachers reported spending their own money on meeting pupils’ pastoral or welfare needs (such as providing food or clothes) so far this academic year ii.

Impossible trade-offs

Only around one in 10 schools report not having had to make cuts to any areas of their provision this academic year due to cost pressures (including but not limited to those related to the increased cost of living). These cuts are directly impacting the teaching and learning environment and experiences of pupils, including cuts to staffing, resources and targeted support. For example, 67 per cent of primary and 39 per cent of secondary senior leaders report cutting spending on learning resources, such as printed worksheets, materials for art and science activities and library books.

In addition, school cuts are impacting on the school estate - a substantial share of schools report making cuts to building maintenance (at 53 per cent of primary schools and 32 per cent of secondary schools) and improvements (at 46 per cent and 33 per cent). This is particularly concerning in the context of the recent Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) crisis and National Audit Office estimates that around 700,000 pupils are currently learning in a school that needs major rebuilding or refurbishment.

Urgent action is needed now

Together, our findings paint a concerning picture of the profound impact that cost-of-living and wider cost pressures are continuing to have on schools. These pressures show no sign of abating with senior leaders reporting that their schools’ financial positions are likely to continue deteriorating. They also anticipate the need to make additional cuts to provision in the coming financial year, despite the Government investing an extra billion into schools in 2024/25.

Among other things, we are recommending the Government prioritises giving schools greater financial support to address pressing wellbeing and welfare needs, alongside meeting the additional direct costs faced by schools. In addition, it is critical that pupils and families access appropriate support and specialist services in a timely manner, rather than schools and teachers having to step in to fill these gaps.

Additional notes

[i] Note that the 2023 and 2024 surveys took place at different points in the academic year. The first survey was in the field between 21 April and 11 May 2023 while this year’s survey took place in March 2024. This should be borne in mind when comparing findings between this year and last year.

[ii] From September 2023 to March 2024.