Getting ready for school
With the summer holidays coming to an end all over Europe, kids and teenagers are getting ready to return to school. While school education is available for free, attending school is not cheap and some families struggle to cope with the financial burden, especially at the start of the academic year. We spoke to Monika Wild, Head of Health and Social Services at the Austrian Red Cross, to hear more about how they are supporting families in need across Austria.
2 September marked the end of summer holidays in Austria. We hear that at this time of year, many families pass by their local Red Cross office for “Schulstartpakete”. What is this about?
In July and August, the Austrian Red Cross distributes so called “Schulstartpakete” (school starter parcels) among children attending primary and secondary school. The children that we support through this programme live with families who depend on funds from the “Bedarfsorientierte Mindestsicherung (BMS)” – a means-tested minimum income scheme designed to assist people who cannot manage to earn a living themselves. BMS was introduced on 1 September 2010 to replace the previous social assistance programme. Eligible families receive a voucher from the regional public authorities. Last year, about 54,000 vouchers were sent and the Austrian Red Cross distributed more than 45,000 parcels. This corresponds to a take-up rate of roughly 84%. Independent evaluation shows high satisfaction rates regarding the organisation of the programme, content of the parcels, and overall usefulness of the support.
What is, the typical situation of a family requesting support from this school starter parcel programme?
Everybody with school children knows about the higher expenditures for school materials at the beginning of each new academic year. This is not always cheap. Many of these children’s parents struggle to find work, or face difficulties like substance abuse, private debt, language barriers or precarious living conditions, accompanied by mental or physical challenges. They might be single parents or people experiencing in-work poverty. Nearly half of the families supported have three or more children of school age. Hence, distributing school starter parcels is a useful way to reduce the financial burden at the beginning of the school year.
You mention that some of the families who you support are considered “working poor” – households with one or several members who are in work and have a regular income and steady living situation, but constantly struggle to get through the month. Do backpacks, colour pens, and paper make a difference?
The school starter parcels are indeed needed. Increasing take-up rates confirm that. They are also a good way to promote social inclusion. The parcels make the kids happy and help to make going to school more joyful. Since all materials in the parcels are branded products, discrimination is avoided. The purchase value of a parcel is approximately EUR 70, which represents a great support for the families.
In recent weeks you saw many smiling children’s faces when visiting local Red Cross offices to distribute parcels. What would you say are the crucial elements to make this material assistance scheme work for the children?
A clear definition of the target group is an important aspect. The regional government sends the voucher for a parcel to the recipients and the Red Cross then distributes the parcels. Another crucial element is freedom of choice. Nine different parcels are offered, and the families can choose which one suits them best. We distribute parcels for younger children which include school bags, for example. While parcels for older children contain different products like a calculator, or a pair of dividers. As a result, the different needs of families can be met. Furthermore, a booklet with frequently asked questions, details of helplines, and other important information is given directly to the children to take with them. The Red Cross also provides counselling on demand as well.
Which other services and support can families and children receive from a Red Cross office during the rest of the year?
We provide various services such as learning support and learning clubs. Youngster can get peer-support via telephone or Whatsapp thanks to our ‘time4friends’ service. We also provide ‘individual spontaneous assistance’ (Individuelle Spontanhilfe), which is financial help for people in distress. Local volunteers trained as ‘social buddies’ (Sozialbegleiter) help people to complete application forms and offer additional social assistance. The objective is to provide specific material assistance, combined with access to further support services such as information, advice and counselling.
Our food banks are open all year round and distribute food to those who have difficulty in purchasing enough to avoid hunger. In the summertime, children from marginalised groups can spend a week at a football camp, due to a partnership we have with the football camp ‘Starcamps’. For socially disadvantaged children and children with special needs, the Austrian Red Cross Youth also organises summer camps every year. Thanks to this wide range of services, we can help disadvantaged people, especially families with children, all year round.
The Austrian school starter parcel scheme is financed using the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD). This programme will end next year, negotiations for the next generation of EU programmes are currently taking place. What would your proposal be to improve aid to people in need?
Education is a crucial factor in reducing the economic and social divide in society. We know that education fosters social mobility. Investment in education is an investment in our society’s future. The distribution of school starter parcels has proven to be successful in Austria. In 2018, 85% of the recipients said that the school starter parcels were a very helpful support. One woman told us: “I thinks school start parcels are great and very helpful for me since I am a single mother. Thank you for the support.”
For more information, see also:
Austrian Red Cross
Schulstartpakete (school starter parcels)
Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection
European Commission Directorate General Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion
Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD)
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