Back to school can be an expensive time for parents but help is available

Help is available with back to school costs

With last week’s announcement that all children in Northern Ireland should return to school full-time at the end of this month, many parents are now facing an expensive couple of weeks buying new school uniforms, shoes and other supplies. This can be an anxious time in any year, but more so this year due to COVID-19. While further guidance from the Department of Education is anticipated, we know there is still some uncertainty about aspects of the return to school, such as the provision of breakfast and after school clubs and how varying school hours will interact with childcare drop offs and pick ups.

It’s a challenging and expensive time for parents, but the good news is there may be some help available to parents with back to school costs.

Help with school meals

The Education Authority oversees the free school meals scheme for primary and secondary school pupils. Additionally, assistance is available for children who have a statement of special educational needs and specific dietary requirements. Eligibility criteria is dependent on parents being in receipt of one of the following benefits: Income Support, Income Based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Related Employment and Support Allowance, some Tax Credit claimants (with an annual taxable income of under £16,190) or Universal Credit (with net household income of less than £14,000).

Help with school uniforms

The Education Authority also oversees the school uniform grant. Eligibility criteria is similar to the free school meals scheme, and households are entitled to one clothing allowance of between £35.75 and £78, per school-aged pupil, per academic year.

Help with transport costs to school

The Education Authority is required to provide transport to and from school for any pupils who meet specific criteria. In addition to this, a child with additional educational needs or disabilities may also receive assistance with transport.

Support is made available where there is no suitable school within a legal walking or qualifying distance from the pupil’s home, or where the pupil has failed to secure a place in an appropriate school that is located within the legal walking or qualifying distance. The legal walking or qualifying distance is two miles for primary aged pupils and three miles for secondary aged pupils, based on the safest, shortest route a child could be expected to walk, accompanied if appropriate.

Help with the cost of childcare

Many families still require ‘wraparound’ childcare during school term-time and this may take the form of after schools clubs on the school premises or be provided within day nurseries or by childminders. Now is the time for parents to find out what form of financial support they can access – most families are entitled to some help with their childcare costs, whether through Tax Credits, Childcare Vouchers, Universal Credit or Tax-Free Childcare. For those using Childcare Vouchers, some will have reduced or paused their payments during COVID-19 so it’s important to increase or restart these before children return to childcare to make the maximum savings from the scheme.

Personalised advice and guidance

Back to school is a busy and challenging time of year at any time, but even more so this year as parents and schools adjust to the ‘new normal’ as a result of COVID-19 but it’s important not to miss out on the financial support that is available. Employers For Childcare’s Family Benefits Advice Service provides free, impartial and confidential advice to parents on the financial support their family is entitled to, including with back-to-school costs. Freephone 028 9267 8200 or email We also have lots of useful information for parents available on our website