The impact of the cost of living crisis on school sport

We know that unhappy, unhealthy children don’t learn effectively. If children don’t learn, they don’t achieve their potential in life and we don’t have a society fit for the future.


Research published by Young Minds on the 26 September confirmed that children are not learning due to their declining mental health. When children have access to PE, play and sport they are happier, and when they are happy they achieve more.

The squeeze on family finances and school budgets could have disastrous consequences for young people’s health and wellbeing (Good Childhood Report 2022, The Children’s Society):

  • 85% of parents and carers are concerned about the impact of the cost-of-living increases on their family
  • 27% have struggled with the cost of PE or sports kit over the last year – this equates to around 450,000 more children than are in receipt of Free School Meals.

In London (London Sport, 13 July 2022), this is emphasised further:

  • 45% of Londoners have cut back on exercise due to financial constraints
  • Lower-income families have been hit hardest with nearly 8 in 10 reporting lower activity levels
  • 52% agreed that the rising cost of living had limited their ability to afford both sport and leisure equipment.

It is becoming increasingly evident that without urgent action some young people are at very real risk of being priced out of sport and physical activity altogether, with dire consequences for not only their health and wellbeing, but also their education and wider life chances.

The impact of rising costs on young people’s health and wellbeing

Utilita 'The Price to play report' (17 May 2022)

The pandemic and rise in the cost of living has led to 2,600 grassroots football clubs folding in last 12 months, a report has found. A further 6,000 across the UK are at risk of closure between now and the end of next season.

The Report asked 1,000 parents of grassroots footballers, aged 5-16, how their football had been impacted by the pandemic and, latterly, by the cost-of-living crisis.

  • 10% of players have not returned to the pitch, with 31% of parents saying that they couldn’t afford the subs and 27% not being able to afford other things such as kit or equipment
  • Two thirds of grassroots players (67%) are required to have more than one pair of football boots or Astroturf trainers as a result of playing on a range of surfaces, according to parents. Sadly 27% of parents admitted their inability to afford more than one pair of boots, limiting where their child can play
  • When asked if families can comfortably afford the weekly, monthly or annual subs required to be part of a club, 35% said they are already struggling to afford subs, or know they will be less able to afford the subs in the near future. A third of parents said they already can’t afford the cost of subs, but they make sacrifices elsewhere in their lives to enable their child to play (33%).

Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) via YouGov (April 2022)

Even in term time, cost is a significant barrier for parents when it comes to making sure their young children get enough physical exercise.

The official recommended amount of exercise for children aged one to five is three hours per day, but a survey by the EIF found that less than a fifth of children (19%) are getting that amount.

Among children in families with a total gross income of less than £30,000 just 13% are getting the recommended amount of exercise.

27% of parents surveyed stated the cost of accessing spaces for physical activity (such as soft play areas or classes) was a factor preventing their child from doing more physical activity. Cost is the most cited factor for households with an income under £30,000, whereas a lack of time was the most cited reason by those with higher incomes (over £50,000).  

Among all parents of children aged one to five, 16% said the main factor preventing their child from doing more physical activity was the cost of accessing physical activity spaces, rising to 20% among families with a household income of under £30,000.

The cost of living crisis therefore could discourage parents from taking young children to indoor or outdoor play areas, such as public parks, indoor play centres and children’s centres, and further worsen health disparities.

The impact of COVID-19 on young people’s health and wellbeing

The latest research published in September 2022 (Walker et al, University of Bristol) demonstrates the impact that COVID-19 has had on young people’s health and wellbeing, amplifying concerns about the impact of reduced activity in the face of the cost-of-living burden being faced by families and the budget pressure on schools.

This research has looked at how the activity levels of children aged 10-11 have been affected by the COVID-19 lockdown, after lockdowns were eased and things returned to "normal."

The previous release of research showed that activity levels had fallen, and sedentary behaviour had increased and hadn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels. This update aimed to investigate the fall they had seen.

It found that:

  • Feelings of novelty experienced during the initial stages of lockdown waned as restrictions were prolonged, creating an increasingly challenging period for parents and their children
  • During periods of restrictions, the importance of parental encouragement and access to appropriate facilities in the local and home environment helped facilitate physical activity.

Following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, emotional overwhelm and physical fatigue among children, stemming from a sedentary and socially isolated life in lockdown and other restrictions, were key contributors to the decreased moderate to vigorous physical activity and increased sedentary behaviour.

Why is enrichment important?

A broad and deep enrichment offer can provide all young people with the opportunity to develop their confidence, resilience and knowledge, so they may keep themselves physically and mentally healthy; and the schools role in consistently providing personal development of pupils ensures they are able to access wide, rich experiences beyond the curriculum.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) highlights extended school time is often linked to a range of benefits for low-income students, which include increased attendance at school, improved behaviour, and better relationships with peers. However, recent research highlights that one in five (19.6 per cent) parents in England report that their primary or secondary school children do no enrichment activities in an average week, and this rising to one in four of those in the lowest social grades.

With the increased reference of a narrowing curriculum, the increased cost of activity and sport in the community – it could be argued the place and need for an inclusive, accessible, and meaningful sport and physical activity enrichment offer has never been stronger.

Children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural and social wellbeing on average achieve higher levels of academic achievement and are more engaged in school both concurrently and in later years.

The Impact of Pupil Behaviour and Wellbeing on Educational Outcomes, DfE (2012)
The Impact of Pupil Behaviour and Wellbeing on Educational Outcomes