Created in collaboration with our SEND and safeguarding expert.
What are the current issues?
There are several official and media reports that highlight the issue and impact of poverty on children, both in and outside of schools. According to government statistics, there were 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2017/2018, which is 30 percent of children, or 9 in a classroom of 30 pupils.
The campaign group End Child Poverty describes poverty as becoming the ‘new normal’ in many parts of the UK. There are some constituencies where more than half of children are growing up in poverty. Poverty is growing fast and is at its highest in big cities, particularly London, Birmingham and Greater Manchester. Behind the wealth of reports and statistics are real children, families and schools affected by poverty.
Schools are being described as the ‘fourth emergency service’, providing pupils not only with food, but clothes and toiletries too. At the same time, the government’s austerity policies and the related funding cuts are affecting schools’ ability to provide this support to pupils and their families, which increases the wider impact of poverty.
A survey of 400 headteachers, conducted by the NAHT, found that 75 percent of respondents reported a rise in parents seeking financial support or help with the basics. 81 percent of respondents said they had seen a rise in pupils coming into school hungry in the last five years. There are also growing reports of children stealing food.
The Trussell Trust, one of the major groups that runs food banks, gave out 1.6 million emergency food parcels in 2018/2019. This is a 19 percent increase on the year before, and 73 percent more than five years ago. The Trust identifies the five-week wait for universal credit payments as one of the main reasons for why families are being forced to use food banks.
Poverty is also an issue for working parents, with concerns for those above the eligibility threshold for FSM who are faced with income insecurity. The number of children in poverty that come from a working household has risen from 58 percent in 2010/2011 to 70 percent in 2017/2018. These children and their parents are increasingly turning to schools.
What are the consequences of living in poverty?
The consequences of poverty go beyond difficulties with meeting basic needs. School staff know that pupils are less able to learn effectively when they are tired, hungry or worried. For those living in poverty, this is what they experience on a daily basis and it is impacting on their access to and success in education. Pupils’ concentration and motivation are also affected.
Some pupils are not able to get to school at all because they do not have money for public transport, clean uniform or are avoiding lessons that require equipment or resources they cannot afford, e.g. PE, art or food technology.
Many children living in poverty are living in poor or inappropriate housing, or with a continuing risk of homelessness. When ‘Keeping children safe in education’ was updated in 2018, it included a reference to homelessness as a risk to a child’s welfare, stating that “indicators that a family may be at risk of homelessness include household debt, rent arrears, domestic abuse and anti-social behaviour, as well as the family being asked to leave a property”.
There are additional issues for girls in terms of poverty. Almost 50 percent of girls in the UK have missed a full day of school because of their period. 1 in 10 women between the ages of 14 and 21 are unable to afford sanitary products and are having to use substitute products instead. The government has now confirmed it will fund free sanitary products in all schools from 2020, but this policy is still in development.
Schools often need to cancel or amend school trips due to the costs, as not all parents can afford them. Some schools will only consider trips that can be managed using public transport to keep costs down. Though pupil premium funding can be used to help eligible pupils in this way, this money is often used on other support and does not include pupils with working parents. Changes like this can reduce the life experiences of those pupils whose parents cannot afford to provide them with the same experiences outside of school, which, as a result, can exclude them from taking part in some of the activities that their peers can.
As funding cuts increase, support services within LAs for children with SEND are reduced to just statutory services, so children and schools who need SEND support and advice, but do not meet the criteria for an EHC plan, are effectively excluded from receiving support. There is growing inequality within the SEND system where those parents who can afford private diagnosis, assessment and educational psychologist reports receive support, and those who cannot do not. This is further threatening the educational opportunities of those without financial resources.
There are also concerns and fears about other children’s responses to those living in poverty. Apart from the risks of explicit bullying, there is a risk of social exclusion as they are not able to join in with the social interactions and activities of their friends. It may be that they cannot:
- Afford mobile phones or the time online that provides the basis of many teenage interactions.
- Afford social trips, e.g. to the shops.
- Attend birthday parties because their parents cannot afford to buy presents.
- Afford new clothes.
- Invite others to their home because it is too small, there is nowhere to entertain others, or their parents cannot afford to offer food to an extra person.
All of this excludes children, reduces their social opportunities, and impacts on the development of their social skills. It also increases their vulnerability to criminal and sexual exploitation and to grooming by those who appear to offer them the means to access social acceptability, engagement and status.
The impact on staff
Poverty can also have an impact on school staff. The main reason given for why people enter into teaching is to make a difference, but the demands of working in a system where this is more difficult, and in which teachers can see that pupils lack the basics, has a negative impact on morale and wellbeing. More time and energy are needed to get pupils to the right place to learn, and teachers can become frustrated by their lack of resources to meet pupils’ needs.
Schools are increasingly feeling helpless or overstretched, particularly as they face cuts to the pastoral staff that are best placed to support pupils and their families who are at risk of poverty and its impact.
How can schools help?
There are a number of things schools can do to help lessen the impact of poverty on their pupils.
Branded uniform looks smart but can often be quite expensive. You could consider uniform based on what is available in local supermarkets. You could also put good-condition second-hand uniform up for sale or even offer it for free, where necessary. Remember not to just provide uniform, but PE kits and equipment, school bags and lunchboxes too.
PE kits should be simple, low-cost and easily available. When a pupil does not have their kit, the response should be to consider why, rather than penalise them. Train staff to consider why a pupil may not be wearing the correct uniform, before immediately punishing them for it.
Make sure there is a spare PE kit available and that it is clean and in a good condition, otherwise this can become a deterrent to engagement. Ensure that the school PE kit is worn for after-school sports clubs too, so that pupils who cannot afford the latest commercial and club kits are not excluded in any way.
You can check if your LA provides help for parents with the cost of school uniform and PE kit here – make sure you provide parents with this information.
You should also consider the impact of non-uniform days. Keep these as simple and broad as possible, e.g. ask pupils to wear odd socks or a single item in a particular colour. Try and avoid putting pressure on pupils to display the latest fashions or elements that need to be purchased. If pupils need to dress up, e.g. on Victorian day, provide examples of simple homemade options, and make it clear that parents are not expected to provide expensive shop-bought costumes. You could even have some costumes stored to loan out to parents if necessary.
School meals and food banks
All staff should be aware of and understand the signs that a pupil might be hungry, and if they have concerns, they should know who to report these to. You should ensure you have a proactive response to such concerns.
You should ensure that all those entitled to FSM are accessing them and that they can be accessed without a surrounding stigma – is it obvious when pupils are collecting or purchasing their meals, if so, how can this be changed? How are FSM provided on school trips?
Find out what support, free meals and activities are available in your area, and share this information with pupils and their families. Remember that those who depend on FSM during term-time, do not receive the same meals during the school holidays.
Try to build links with your local food bank, so that you can issue food bank vouchers and ensure it is known that these can be asked for confidentially. You could consider setting up your own food bank or community fridge, ideally in partnership with other local bodies to ensure continuity over the school holidays.
Are you able to offer a breakfast club? Consider engaging with the Magic Breakfast programme – funding is available to start or improve breakfast provision in over 1,770 schools on a first come, first served basis, subject to eligibility. You can find out more and make an application here.
Equipment and resources
Try to provide stationery items – for many pupils, the fact that they can get to school is an achievement, so to penalise them for not having a pencil can be unfair or inappropriate. Staff should consider why a pupil may not have the correct equipment before issuing a punishment.
Make resources for food technology available, and do not penalise or exclude pupils because they have not brought the resources in. Pupil premium money could be used to fund this, and food should be placed in the fridge readily available for the pupil, so as not to highlight that they have not brought their own resources in. Make sure the pupil is permitted to take the final product home.
You could ask parents to pay a termly amount to fund food technology resources, then the school can provide ingredients for all pupils and subsidise some if required. When planning food technology lessons, consider the cost, availability and type of ingredients that are required, and try not to make things too expensive.
Prior to 2020, consider providing free and easily-accessible sanitary products – it is important that pupils can ask for products confidentially, so consider how you can make this happen. It could be supported by having a red box – this provides staff, pupils and even visitors with the opportunity to donate sanitary products for pupils to use.
Other ways that schools can help include the following:
- Consider offering support to wash clothes in school, to ensure pupils have clean uniforms and PE kits.
- Make use of first day calling and the interrogation of school attendance records. What are the patterns? Do absences fit with avoiding particular lessons or are they occurring at the end of the week or month when money or clean clothes are running out? What are the patterns for sibling absence? Make sure you ask questions.
- Ensure you know who your young carers are and that they are getting the support they need.
- Consider home visits for your vulnerable and hard to engage pupils – a chance to see the pupil’s home life can give a perspective-changing insight.
Don’t forget to ask parents and pupils what help and support they want or need, then try to provide as much support as you can without judgement.
Adams, R., (2019) ‘Schools have become ‘fourth emergency service’ for poorest families’, <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/mar/15/schools-have-become-fourth-emergency-service-for-poorest-families> [Accessed: 7 June 2019]
BBC (2019) ‘Period poverty: Free sanitary products for schools is ‘huge step’’, <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47553449> [Accessed: 7 June 2019]
Brook, P., (2018) ‘Why working parents are struggling to repel the rising tide of poverty’, <https://www.jrf.org.uk/blog/why-working-parents-are-struggling-repel-rising-tide-poverty> [Accessed: 7 June 2019]
Department for Work and Pensions (2019) ‘Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the UK income distribution: 1994/95-2017/18’
DfE (2014) ‘Home to school travel and transport guidance’
DfE (2018) ‘Keeping children safe in education’
Girlguiding (2018) ‘End period poverty and stigma’, <https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/periodpoverty/> [Accessed: 7 June 2019]
Marsh, S., (2015) ‘Five top reasons people become teachers – and why they quit’, <https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/jan/27/five-top-reasons-teachers-join-and-quit> [Accessed: 7 June 2019]
NAHT (2019) ‘‘Embarrassed and ashamed’ the impact of austerity on England’s schoolchildren’, <https://www.naht.org.uk/news-and-opinion/press-room/nahtconf-embarrassed-and-ashamed-the-impact-of-austerity-on-englands-schoolchildren/> [Accessed: 7 June 2019]
Period Poverty UK (2019) ‘Supporting women in crisis. Period.’, <http://periodpoverty.uk/> [Accessed: 7 June 2019]
Weale, S., (2019) ‘Special-needs children lose out on £1.2bn of support, says union’, <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/15/special-needs-children-lose-out-on-12bn-of-support-says-union> [Accessed: 7 June 2019]