Derry free school uniform scheme ‘a lifeline’ in cost of living crisis

The Focus Project in Creggan are running a free school uniform scheme to help families who are struggling with the rising cost of living.

The Focus Project was started by Creggan Enterprises, in Rath Mor, in 2020 to engage women who are marginalised from community development through training, support and engagement. With the rising cost of living, they have had to shift their focus to helping families, particularly women, who are struggling financially.

Amie Gallagher, Project Coordinator, said: “We would do a lot of good relations and peace building work when we were first set up but, when the pandemic happened, we became one-to-one support and well-being support to get to know the women and find out their needs. We then set up the food parcel schemes, helping people with fuel and uniforms was also one of the things that came up. We didn’t do as much last year but with the cost of living this year, we had to get back to the scheme.

“We urgently need more donations. Secondary school items would be one of the main things we need but we also take bags, shoes, PE uniforms, anything people have we will make use of. It’s strange because the first year we did this, we had more donations and I know it’s because people are looking at what they have and deciding it’ll do for another year where they would usually go out and buy a new uniform. There’s people sharing with friends too, a lot of our women would share things with each other for their children.

Amie Gallagher, Project Coordinator at Focus Project and volunteer Nikita Burke.

“There has been a Cost of Living Crisis campaign group set up, which we have joined, and they’re looking at how schools can solve this issue long-term. They’re asking can they simplify the uniform, make it so you don’t have to go to a certain shop that has a monopoly on prices. If you go into a supermarket, you can get plain, affordable uniform items but our schools in Derry either don’t do the colours or you have to have a crest. I know board of governors here have the power to change the uniform policy, we don’t have to have this pressure on people. Even the PE uniform alone, that could cost £70 for a full PE kit for someone in secondary school. Then you have shoes on top of it and they grow out of it in six months. We think everyone on a low income should get a uniform grant or some sort of help, not just people on certain benefits. I think there’s long-term things that can be done so this doesn’t have to be an issue every year.

“Derry is deprived and some areas are more deprived than others. I think when schools are in certain areas, they have a duty to understand. Children are sent home from school for not having the fight shoes or other item. They’re missing out on a days education and that’s really not acceptable. They should have a bit of understanding for families. That’s not fair on the young person either because they’re being singled out. I know in some schools it’s done discreetly but in others it’s done in front of everyone and you’re embarrassing a young person.

“I view the work we’re doing as putting a plaster on a gaping wound. My job is to get women into training and back into employment but all I can do now is crisis management. That’s not actually my job but I can’t expect women to come and do training when they’re worried about being able to pay the electric for their homes. A lot of this is part of a bigger picture. Charity is good but people shouldn’t need it and we shouldn’t be normalising it. We’ve normalised food banks. We’ve normalised ‘working poor’. Where does this end? There’s things that could be done, practically, by the Executive that could help. They could be putting caps on a lot of the costs, they could be reinstating £20 universal credit. We backed the Unison ‘free school meals for all’ campaign as well. They are practical things that would help families right now, not five or ten years down the line. The Executive could make all these decisions now but they’re not sitting and people are suffering hugely because of it. We’re doing what we can on the ground but this shouldn’t be our job and families shouldn’t be in this position. I hate the normalisation of charity and leaning on food parcels and food banks. We shouldn’t even have them in this society. Us doing this stops women from going on and reaching their full potential because we have to meet that basic need. It’s women who are always impacted from benefit cuts and rising prices in childcare and it’s women who take on a lot of the guilt too. One of our main aims is to educate women on the systems that are in place and get them to be community activists. We want them to know it’s not their fault, they’re trying to survive a faulty system. We show them who makes the decisions, what those people could be doing and what we could do together to make that change happen. We campaign together to raise awareness of these issues and I think that takes away some of the guilt that comes with financial struggles. When we share together and people talk about what they’re going through, you realise everybody round the table feels the same and that’s so powerful.”

Nikita Burke is a volunteer at the uniform scheme but she also attends some of the groups in the Focus Project. She said: “I joined last year when things started coming back to normal after Covid. There’s a woman whose son goes to the same school as mines and she told me about the things they do here. So, I came over and spoke to Amie and it’s been going great. I come over when the kids are at school and this group has helped me a lot, I would just be in the house and never get out if I didn’t come here. I’m hoping that by volunteering at the uniform drive I’ll be able to chat to women who might be interested in joining a group and show them that the help is there. I would have come here much earlier if someone had mentioned to me because it can be scary to come here first.”

Some of the school uniforms available for those who need them.

Amie continued: “People who would like to avail of the uniform scheme can message the Focus Project Derry page on Facebook. I monitor that page myself so they can let us know what they’re looking for and we can arrange for them to come in whenever suits. Nobody else needs to be here when they come in, it is all down to whatever the person feels comfortable with. We also provide support so we can sit down for a cup of tea and a chat and maybe get some women linked in to somewhere in the community to see if we can offer any other support. There’s still a shame around getting support like this so we really want to get the message across that we’re all in the same boat this year. We’re all struggling and feeling the pinch but there is still an embarrassment and I’m here to let people know that it’s not their fault they are struggling, they have been completely failed by the system.”

A donation box has been left outside Eurospar in the Rath Mor Centre and the Focus Project are grateful for any donations of second-hand or new clothes. They also regularly post updates on their Facebook Page of uniforms they are in need of and their opening hours.

The uniform drop-off box is located outside Eurospar in the Rath Mor Centre in Creggan.