HUNDREDS of families are turning to a fund set up almost 100 years ago to ensure their children can go to school in a decent pair of shoes and a winter coat.

Anti-poverty campaigners last night (Thursday, December 26) said it was "shocking" that such a fund was still needed and blamed the Government for the growing hardship being faced by some families.

The County Durham School Benevolent Fund was established in 1921 by the National Union of Teachers and Durham County Council's education committee.

Due to county council cutbacks, responsibility for administering the fund was taken over for the time being by Thornhill Primary School, at Shildon, in September.

The school's bursar, Alison Overfield, said: "Our headteacher is part of the schools forum and said we would do it in order to continue support for needy families."

Since September, 320 applications for support have been received and Mrs Overfield said a backlog of another 80 applications had also had to be dealt with.

"There has been an increase, year on year, in the number of applications," she said.

The fund, which is overseen by a general council of trustees, gives grants of up to £35 per child towards the cost of a pair of shoes and £35 towards the cost of a winter coat if parents or guardians are eligible for free school meals and the pupil lives in County Durham.

Families are referred to the fund by parent support advisors, family support workers, social workers and even school headteachers.

Tim Nichols, a spokesman for the Child Poverty Action Group, said the fund highlighted inequality throughout the UK.

"It's shocking that a fund set up nearly 100 years ago to help the poorest children with such basic essentials as shoes and a warm coat is in growing demand today," he said.

"But there is something else we have in common with the 1920s and that is extraordinary economic inequality.

"Britain is a much more wealthy nation today than when the fund was created, but the wealth in Britain today is so unequally shared.

"We have some people wealthy enough to have closets full of hundreds of shoes they only wear once, and then we have families on poverty pay who cannot afford new shoes for their children's growing feet."

Mr Nichols added: "The squeeze on wages, rising prices for essentials like rents, energy, food and clothing, and the unprecedented scale of cuts to safety net support for families and children all play a part in the growing hardship more and more families are facing.

"But the main reason it is so bad is that the Government simply hasn't got the national priorities right and this kind of hardship should be avoided by making sure there is an adequate safety net that stops families getting into this downward spiral."

Durham County Council officials hope Thornhill Primary School's decision to step in and administer the fund will ensure it continues to support those in need.

Caroline O'Neill, head of education, said: "Historically we have administered it as a goodwill gesture.

"Unfortunately, given our financial situation, Durham County Council is no longer able to continue this.

"We let them know and hope that they will be able to continue the fund themselves."

Income for the fund is generated by an annual appeal to schools and parish council. Trades unions also make contributions.