Parents urged to check if they can get back to school help – from tax credits to free meals and uniforms

PARENTS whose circumstances have changed due to coronavirus are being urged to check if they can get help towards school costs.

This includes benefits, free school meals and help with uniform and transport costs.

Charity Citizens Advice says it's had double the number of visits to the Help With School Costs page on its website compared to last year.

It comes after the Office of National Statistics said there were 730,000 Brits left unemployed from March to August after the coronavirus outbreak.

Meanwhile, a further 9.6million people have been furloughed.

But where circumstances have changed, you may now be eligible for help or benefits.

Rachel Ingleby, benefits expert at Citizens Advice, said: “We know the start of the school year can be a stretch for people’s budgets, particularly if you’re on a low income. 

“If you’ve claimed benefits for the first time during this pandemic, or have seen your circumstances change, it’s worth checking whether you can apply for extra help with costs such as school lunches, transport or uniforms.”

Free school meals

Children in England in reception, years 1 or 2 automatically get free school meals if they go to a government-funded school. 

In Scotland, it's in primary years 1, 2 and 3. This applies to all children in these years – your family's financial circumstances do not matter.

In Wales, it's younger children who attend nursery for full days as well as sixth form school pupils.

But if your children are of different ages and you want them to have free school meals in England and Wales, you can apply for them if you receive one of the following:

  • Universal Credit – For kids going back to school this autumn term, you’ll be able to apply if you started your claim for Universal Credit before April 1, 2018 or if you generally earn less than £7,400 a year after tax, not including benefits
  • Child tax credit – The exception to this is you can't apply for free meals if your yearly income is £16,190 or more before tax or you're also entitled to working tax credit
  • Working tax credit run-on – you might get this for four weeks if you're no longer eligible for working tax credit.
  • Income support
  • Income-based jobseeker's alowance
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • Guarantee credit (part of pension credit)
  • Asylum support – if you've asked for asylum and you're waiting for a decision

Children who also get paid these benefits directly, instead of through a parent or guardian, can also get free school meals.

Your kid may also get free school meals if you’re getting any of these benefits and they’re also younger than the compulsory age for starting school (five) and in full time education.  

To apply for free school meals in England, visit the government’s website and put in your postcode.

In Wales, contact your local education authority, which you can find on the UK government website. You can find out more about getting free school meals on the Welsh government website.

If your child's school is closed, the school instead will offer:

  • supermarket vouchers for £19.50 a week
  • food – this might be delivered or you might have to collect it
  • money paid by bank transfers

For Scotland, eligibility is generally similar and you still qualify to apply. Visit the Scottish government website for more information.

For Northern Ireland, you can apply via this website.

Free transport to and from school

For kids aged five to 16 in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, you could get free or low cost transport if you don’t live close to the school and your child can’t walk there or it isn't safe to.

This is done through your local education authority. If you’re unsure which body that is, the government has a checker on its website that you can use.

You then contact your local education authority directly and apply.

For Scotland, to apply for free transport, visit the Scottish government’s website.

For Northern Ireland, to apply for free transport, visit the Northern Irish education authority’s website.

Activity costs and school uniforms

If you’re in England and receiving Universal Credit, tax credits or income support, housing benefit, employment support allowance or jobseeker’s allowance, you could also get help to pay for your kids' school uniforms or music lessons.

This is done through your local education authority.

If you’re unsure which department that is, the government has a checker on its website that you can use.

You then contact your local education authority directly and apply.

The amount you can claim for the one-off grant varies depending on where you live.

The London Borough of Greenwich, for example, offers grants that range from £40 for pupils starting reception up to £100 for those entering year seven.

There are deadlines in place too so make sure you bear that in mind when wanting to apply, and some local authorities won't offer any help.

We've created a guide on how to apply for the grant.

For families in Wales, here's where to find out about the grant on the Welsh government website.

In Scotland, if you qualify for the grant you'll receive at least £100.

You may also be able to claim a Best Start Grant School Age Payment. This payment of £250 can help with the costs of a child starting primary one.

You can apply with your local Scottish Education Authority.

For Northern Ireland, you can apply for a uniform grant via this website.

Some UK charities also are able to help with school uniforms while other schools have secondhand shops which are cheaper than the full priced, newer uniforms.

Grocery Aid, for example, has launched a School Essentials Grant, which has been designed to help parents who work in the grocery industry, and have been for at least 12 months.

Meanwhile, several high street shops, including Lidl and Aldi, Morrisons and Poundland, are now offering school uniforms with discounted prices.

Kids who want to keep learning after year 11

For children who are going to stay in education after year 11 across the UK, meaning they go to sixth form or a college, you need to tell HMRC’s child benefit office that you want to keep getting benefits or support.

HMRC will send you a letter asking if your child is going to stay in education or start training in work. 

If you don’t tell them, your child benefits will stop.

If you don’t receive a form, you can get one from HMRC’s website.

Meanwhile, parents who have seen a drop in their income during the coronavirus pandemic may be entitled to thousands of pounds in child benefits.

Parents can claim regardless of whether they work or not, but if you or your partner earn between £50,000 and £60,000 a year, you get hit with a tax charge which reduces the amount you get under the benefit.

We've created a guide to help you work out how much you could be owed under the benefit scheme.

Disability living allowance

Across the UK, if your kid is under 16 and is disabled or has a health condition, you could get between £23.60 and £151.40 a week to help with costs under disability living allowance (DLA).

DLA isn’t means tested, so if you’re still earning money, or out of work, you can still apply for the benefit.

Children do have to be eligible to receive it though and the requirements include being under 16, needing extra looking after or having walking difficulties, having lived in Britain for two of the past three years if over three-years-old, and be a UK resident and not subject to immigration control.

For health conditions, your child needs to require much more looking after than a child of the same age who doesn’t have a disability and they must have difficulty getting around.

They also must have had these difficulties for the past three months and will continue to have them for six months.

For the full details of who else qualifies, visit the DLA page on the government’s website.

To apply, you need to print off and fill in the DLA form or call the DLA number (0800 121 4600) and ask for a form to be sent to you.

The office is open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm.

DLA can be paid from the start of your claim but it isn’t backdated. Your claim starts on the date the form is received or the date you call the enquiry line (if you return the claim pack within six weeks).

You’ll usually get a decision letter about eight weeks after your form is received. The letter will tell you when you’ll get your first payment.

Child tax credits

Across the UK, Universal Credit has largely replaced child tax credits but if you are entitled to or get the severe disability premium, you can apply for it.

If your child is 16, you can claim up until August 31 after their 16th birthday. If they are in approved education or training, you can claim until their 20th birthday.

If you want to apply for child tax credits, call HMRC on 0345 300 3900. It can take up to five weeks to process a claim.

You can cut the cost of your back-to-school buys with our cash-saving tips.

Amazon also has dozens of free maths books, apps and games to help kids learn if you're struggling to buy books.

And here are the best children’s savings accounts – from Halifax to Barclays.

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