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How are cost-of-living pressures on families affecting schools?

NFER’s data reveals how much the cost of living crisis is exacerbating pressures on schools, explains Megan Lucas

NFER’s data reveals how much the cost of living crisis is exacerbating pressures on schools, explains Megan Lucas

25 Sep 2023, 5:00

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. Conducted by ASK Research and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, NFER has published the full report from our three-part series to understand the scale of the challenges which schools are facing and the impact these are having on them.

Drawing on responses from over 2,500 senior leaders and teachers in mainstream and special schools in England, the report concludes that urgent action is required. Recent cost-of-living increases risk having far-reaching and long-lasting repercussions for pupils across all school settings, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Mental health and well-being exacerbated

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 and their level of need, especially in the most disadvantaged schools.  This is based on a definition of additional support as anything over and above the usual provision pupils might receive in relation to pupil premium and/or SEND support.

Schools are particularly concerned about the escalation in the level of pupil wellbeing and mental health needs. As shown in Figure 1, when the fieldwork was undertaken in April and May this year, senior leaders reported that over one-quarter of pupils in mainstream schools required additional support for mental health and wellbeing. This was even higher in special schools, where over 40 per cent of pupils needed additional support.

Participants were asked to recollect the number of pupils requiring additional support in the previous year. Therefore, estimates may be influenced by factors which have affected respondents’ perceptions and recall. Nevertheless, the year-on-year increase is statistically significant.

Scale and range of support expanded

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. Schools have expanded both the scale and range of support they offer to ensure pupils are able to continue to engage in education. Indeed, while this may go beyond schools’ statutory responsibilities, pupils whose most basic needs are not being met are less likely to attend school and to 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.

Provision, recruitment and retention affected

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. In effect, cost-of-living pressures are affecting schools’ core provision and compounding recruitment and retention challenges

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. Worse, these pressures show no sign of abating in the short-medium term.

Among other things, we are recommending that schools are given greater financial support in the short term to address pressing wellbeing and welfare needs, alongside meeting the additional direct costs associated with the increased cost of living.

Families should also be provided with additional support, which might include revisiting current levels of welfare support and/or additional cost-of-living payments.

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