Why schools need urgent action to cope with cost-of-living pressures

By Megan Lucas, NFER Research Manager

Thursday 28 September 2023

Megan Lucas, NFER Research Manager

This article was first published in Schools Week on Friday 22nd September.

School staff are on the front line in grappling with the challenges faced by pupils and their families brought about by the cost-of-living crisis. NFER has published the full report from our three-part series which draws on responses from over 2,500 senior leaders and teachers in mainstream and special schools in England [1] to understand the scale of the challenges which schools are facing and the impact these are having on them.

Our research highlights that without urgent action now, recent cost-of-living increases risk having far reaching and long-lasting impacts on pupils, particularly those who are most vulnerable, across both mainstream and special school settings.

Pupils’ mental health and well-being needs have been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis

The vast majority of senior leaders (at least 84 per cent across primary, secondary and special settings) report that cost-of-living pressures have increased both the numbers of pupils requiring additional support [2] and their level of need, especially in the most disadvantaged schools. Schools are particularly concerned about the escalation in the level of pupil wellbeing and mental health needs. As shown in Figure 1, senior leaders report that over a quarter of pupils in mainstream schools currently [3] require additional support for mental health and well-being, which is significantly higher than last year [4]. This is even higher in special schools, where over 40 per cent of pupils need additional support.

Figure 1 - Average percentage of pupils requiring different types of additional support

Percentage of schools currently providing support/services to pupils and households

Schools have expanded the scale and range of support for pupils to ensure pupils are able to continue to engage in education

In response to this escalation in need among pupils due to cost-of-living pressures, the vast majority of schools are providing unprecedented urgent support to pupils and in some cases their households. While this may go beyond schools’ statutory responsibilities, pupils whose most basic needs are not being met are less likely to attend school and successfully engage with learning.

As shown in Figure 2, most schools (over 70 per cent across primary, secondary and special settings) report providing food to some pupils through food parcels/food banks/food vouchers and subsidised breakfasts. In addition, nearly all schools (at least 90 per cent across settings) are subsidising extra-curricular activities.

Figure 2 - Percentage of schools currently providing support/services to pupils and households

Note: Due to rounding errors, figures may not match breakdowns presented elsewhere

Source: NFER survey of 1441 senior leaders: the minimum number of responses given to a individual item was 1292.

Cost-of-living pressures are affecting schools’ core provision and compounding recruitment and retention challenges

Not only are schools having to meet increased levels of pupil need, but the increased cost of living, together with other challenges, has had a considerable negative impact on their own financial positions. Schools have had to make cuts to their provision (including staffing, learning resources and maintenance) that staff feel are having a negative impact on the quality of teaching and learning. Schools are only expecting the situation to worsen next year and for further cuts to be necessary.

Recruitment and retention challenges have also been exacerbated by recent cost-of-living increases as salaries in schools have not remained competitive and additional pressures have affected staff retention. This is amplifying the impacts of cuts and hindering schools’ ability to meet pupil need further.


Together, our findings paint a concerning picture of the profound impact that cost-of-living pressures are having on schools, and these pressures show no sign of abating in the short-medium term.

Amongst other things, we are recommending that schools are given greater financial support in the short-term to address pressing well-being and welfare needs, alongside meeting the additional direct costs associated with the increased cost of living. Families should be provided with additional support, which might include revisiting current levels of welfare support available to families and/or addition


[1] This study was conducted with ASK research and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

[2] Additional support was defined as anything over and above the usual provision pupils might receive in relation to pupil premium and/or Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) support.

[3] As the time the survey fieldwork took place in April and May 2023.

[4] Senior leaders were asked to recollect the number of pupils requiring additional support in the previous year and so estimates may be influenced by factors which have affected respondents’ perceptions and recall of the previous year. Significant refers to statistical significance.