Parents getting in debt to clothe and feed pupils as school starts

Parents are becoming indebted to feed and clothe their children at school despite having applied for grants in early July, the ‘Journal’ has learned.

Parents are becoming indebted to feed and clothe their children at school despite having applied for grants in early July, the ‘Journal’ has learned.

Jim Browne, who applied for an Education Authority grant and volunteers at the Creggan Community Collective, says dozens of anxious parents have been contacting the Cromore hub every day in August.

“Very few people I know have been paid out and they are back to school now. There is no person coming out and saying ‘don’t be worrying, they are all going to be paid, there is a bit of a backlog’. With the price of uniforms parents are extremely anxious. This used to be paid out in early August.”

Jim Browne and Gary Donnelly at Cromore.

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Jim believes the online grant approval process is resulting in delays.

“Several years ago they started doing it online. Previously they would have sent a form out and you could take it to the ‘dole’, get it stamped, send it back and that was it sorted. Now it is a process that is very hard to follow. There might be a couple of hundred people in the queue in front of you so the internet is running really slowly.”

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The Education Authority told the ‘Journal’ it undertook ‘a significant media campaign to advise parents to apply by July 31 with correct supporting documentation to ensure that they receive their uniform grant and their free school meals are in place for September 1’.

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“There is a 4 week processing time on applications and it is the responsibility of each parent or guardian to ensure that they apply on time and provide the correct documentation so that their application can be processed and support be put in place in time for the start of term,” it stated.

But Mr. Browne said: “We have people coming in who are vulnerable. They might not understand how to use the internet, how to go about uploading information, what sort of information you need to prove you are on certain benefits.

“When they leave here I don’t know how they are feeling when they are sitting in the house worrying.

People are telling me: ‘I can’t send my child in with last year’s clothes on with their jumpers up their arms. What are the other children going to say?’ But everybody is in the same boat.”

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A mother-of-five who spoke to the ‘Journal’ anonymously applied for the uniform grant nearly two months ago.

“I applied the first week the children were off. They contacted me four weeks later to say that I hadn’t sent off the first sheet of my Universal Credit,” she said. The sheet was blank bar her name and all other details were supplied.

“It is absolutely ridiculous. It took a month for them to come back and say it was incorrect. As soon as they did I sent it in 20 minutes,” she says. This has meant a delayed grant and debt she does not need.

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“I have good family support but there are many people who don’t. I feel for them. I can borrow money from my family but there are people who don’t have that which is really unfair,” she said.

The EA said: “Parents or guardians who do not supply the correct documentation are sent specific messages advising them of what is required and how to resubmit. The delays by parents in providing the correct information means that the processing of their application will be delayed, and in turn delaying when their support is put in place.”

The EA said it has processed over 33,000 applications, that there are no backlogs and its staff are meeting their 4 week Service Level Agreement for July.

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Staff have also been providing paper forms where online applications are not possible, the EA stated.

But Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly insists there is a problem. “People are getting loans and paying exorbitant interest rates in order to send their children to school because they don’t want that stigma. They are finding themselves being thrust further into a debt crisis. The system is broken and it needs to be rectified and it is the people at the bottom of the pile who are suffering most.”