More than 36,000 families needed help getting their children to school last year as the costs of fees, uniforms and stationery continued to rise.

Figures released to the Weekend Herald by the Ministry of Social Development show Work and Income handed out nearly $6 million in advanced benefit payments for school-related expenses in the 2010-11 year.

It also gave out nearly a quarter of a million in special needs grants - which need not be repaid - and $350,000 in recoverable assistance payments - which must be repaid.

A further $615,000 in payments and grants were handed out in the first few months of the 2011-12 year - a figure that's expected to rise dramatically this month as parents prepare to send their children back to school.


The vast majority of requests for help were for school uniforms, followed by stationery and then administration and examination fees.

And the figures reveal that those who were struggling needed to borrow bigger amounts than in the past.

During the 2010-11 year nearly 250 people needed to borrow more than $700 - an amount only 32 people needed nearly 10 years ago.

Family budgeters say they are not surprised by the figures and are already getting phone calls this week from parents who need help.

Federation of Family Budgeting Services chief executive Raewyn Fox said the cost of basic items such as food, power and petrol had continually risen in recent years but wages had not. That had left families, including many who have previously coped, struggling to afford school-related expenses.

The school year's start coming straight after Christmas and school holidays also made it harder for parents to find extra money for fees, uniforms and stationery as they were coping with numerous other bills.

"We are only two weeks into January so it's a bit hard to tell about the school uniform stuff yet but I know our services and our phonelines have been really busy this week."

Ms Fox said struggling families had several options, including accessing all the benefits and grants they were entitled to and contacting groups such as Lions or the Salvation Army, which might be able to help with second-hand uniforms.


Principals' Federation president Paul Drummond said it was concerning, but not surprising, that people needing help were needing bigger sums to get their children to school.

He said schools did their best to keep expenses down but also faced rising costs which higher operational grants didn't always cover and sometimes had to be passed on to parents.

But it was the right of every child to access a quality public education and he urged any parents who were really struggling to contact their school, as most schools did their best to help or offer flexible payment options for things such as donations.