Bedfordshire schools trust offers free uniforms as parents 'struggle to clothe and feed children'

Reception pupils will receive free uniform under the plans. Credit: PA

School pupils will receive free uniforms to help their families with the soaring cost of living, an academy trust has announced, as it said some parents were struggling to clothe their children.

Heart Academies Trust said it would offer a blazer and tie to each of the 260 pupils starting Year 7 this September, as well as a full uniform for the 180 pupils starting Reception.

The Bedford-based multi-academy trust will also be providing a free breakfast to all staff and a free lunch for those on playground duty.

David Morris, chief executive of the trust, said: “We have heard distressing stories of families in our community who can no longer afford to feed and clothe their children.

“The impact of the cost-of-living crisis is acutely felt here. Our community is at the heart of everything we do and we want to help in any way we can. Our children cannot be successful learners if they are not clothed and fed.”

He told the PA news agency “the smallest things can help” and that national research shows “a lot of parents find it extremely hard to find money to feed their families”, with school lunches being the only hot meal of the day for some pupils eligible for free school meals.

Pupils starting in Year 7 in September will receive a free blazer. Credit: PA

Free breakfast for all secondary pupils will also be provided from next year.

He said that given the rate of inflation and rising costs of food, the trust has frozen prices as it has in-house catering across its four academies so costs do not go up for pupils.

Mr Morris said the freeze on dinner prices and uniforms would cost around £75,000 overall, but it felt “morally” like the right thing to do as “children were finding it so hard”.

“We’re lucky – we’ve managed to save money through shared procurement and centralisation of services, we’re about to renegotiate new utility contracts, which you couldn’t think of a worst time in history to do it, and we’re right in the midst of putting LED lights in every school… but it will save us money in the long term,” he added.

He said his schools were affected by worsening levels of deprivation in three key wards in Bedford, 40% of pupils did not stay at Heart’s elementary schools throughout their primary education, and the local teenage pregnancy rate was above average.

Mr Morris said families were on low incomes and finding the cost of living “more challenging”, but that during the pandemic the trust “managed to get close to many of the families” through providing resources and highlighting services.

He added: “The cost of living - looking at utility bills, food – it’s not just families, it’s staff as well, inflation being at the rate it is at the moment. We know pay won’t go up at that rate so they’re feeling it as well.”

Mr Morris said the government needed to take more action on welfare or some families were at risk of “going off the side of a cliff”.

The trust is based in one of the most deprived areas of the country, and poverty in the region has risen over the last two years.

A parent at one of Heart’s schools, who did not want to be named, said: “The food offered at school is like a safety net during those weeks when it’s hard to make ends meet.”

The trust has also said it will repackage extra food and offer it to vulnerable families in the community, as well as donating unused food to the local food bank and the Salvation Army.

Institute for Government research recently found that the cost-of-living crisis will disproportionately impact lower-income households.

Its research showed that although the poorest tenth of households spend an average of 4.8% of their income on gas, a tenth of this group spend 12% or more.