Help with back to school costs

As we approach the end of the summer holidays, many parents will be in the thick of the back to school preparations for older children, or ‘first day at school’ excitement for those heading into P1.

Parents across Northern Ireland are thinking of all they need to organise, including buying new school uniforms and other supplies, and perhaps having to arrange wraparound childcare that enables them to work. For many families this expensive time of year can bring worries about the cost of these school essentials, but the good news is there may be help available to you with back to school costs.

Help with school meals

The Education Authority oversees the free school meals scheme for primary and secondary schools, providing eligible pupils with school meals during term time. In addition to this the Department of Education (DE) has also confirmed that it will provide free school meals for eligible pupils during all school holidays until April 2022. The eligibility criteria for free school meals is set out below. You don’t have to pay for your child’s school meal if one or more of the following applies:

  1. Your child is in full time education and you are in receipt of one of the following benefits:
  • Universal Credit – and your net household earnings aren’t over £14,000 a year
  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Child Tax Credit or Working Tax Credit – with an annual household taxable income of £16,190 or less
  • the Guarantee element of State Pension Credit
  1. You are an Asylum Seeker supported by the Home Office Asylum Support Assessment Team
  1. Your child has a statement of special educational needs and is designated to need a special diet.

Pupils who are receiving one of the benefits listed above in their own name, and who are in full time education, can also meet the eligibility criteria.

Help with school uniform costs

The Education Authority also oversees the school uniform grant for pupils in primary, post-primary and special schools. Eligibility criteria is similar to the free school meals scheme, and households are entitled to one clothing allowance, per school-aged pupil, per academic year.

The amount of support for a Primary School pupil is £35.75.

Secondary School pupils and pupils attending a Special School who are under age 15 on 1 August 2021 are entitled to uniform allowance of £51 plus a PE allowance of £22.

For secondary school pupils aged 15 and over on 1 August 2021 the uniform allowance increases to £56, while the PE allowance remains the same at £22.

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 not secured a place in an appropriate school within that distance.

The Education Authority website provides an online Eligibility Checker to help parents find out if their child will qualify, prior to completing the formal application, available here.

How to apply for Free School Meals, Uniform Grant and help with school transport costs

Free school meals and school uniform grant applications can be made online and parents can upload information regarding their benefit entitlement to prove eligibility. Applications can be made at any time during the academic year where there has been a change of circumstances resulting in the household meeting the eligibility criteria. Once submitted, the application can take up to four weeks to process.

Home to school transport assistance applications can also be made online, for both primary and post primary school pupils.

For further information on free school meals, school uniform grants and home to school transport, including how to apply, visit the Education Authority website. 

Access financial support with the cost of childcare

Many families require ‘wraparound’ childcare during school term-time. This is childcare that wraps around the school day and can be incredibly useful for working parents. The most common types are breakfast clubs and afterschool clubs. Some schools will offer wraparound care, as do many private day nurseries and childminders who can also facilitate drop-offs and pick-ups.

As with all forms of registered childcare, financial support may be available, with most families entitled to some help with their registered childcare costs, whether through Universal Credit, Tax-Free Childcare, Tax Credits or Childcare Vouchers. For those using Childcare Vouchers, some will have reduced or paused payments due to changes in childcare requirements during the summer holidays or due to Covid-19 so, where appropriate, it’s important to increase or restart payments into a Childcare Voucher account to make the maximum savings, and retain entitlement.

Personalised advice and guidance

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 and can help families work out if they are eligible for support with back to school costs, as well as the cost of registered childcare.

Our team is here to help, and our dedicated advisors can be contacted on 028 9267 8200 or email