Taking a whole school approach to child poverty: a teachers guide
Author Maria Buttuller
Date 14th Jun 2022
As of the latest official data, an estimated 4.2 million children live in poverty in the UK (that’s 9 in a classroom of thirty).
Poverty rarely has a single cause, but a range of factors, including the impact of COVID-19, rising living costs, low pay and insecure work or unemployment together mean some people do not have enough resources. These structural causes often place a ‘grip’ on families in poverty and when combined, can impact the educational outcomes of children. But, what is educational equality, what impact does poverty have on educational outcomes and what role do schools play?
Educational inequality - the numbers
Firstly, poverty is a strong statistical predictor of how well a child will achieve at school. What’s more, schools may not always be aware of the children and families that are facing hardship. Poverty-related stigma can mean that families go to great lengths to hide their financial circumstances, but they will often struggle with school costs.
- At the end of primary school, pupils living in poverty are often over nine months behind their peers in reading, writing and maths and this attainment gap persists for pupils throughout secondary school.
- Children from a disadvantaged background are also less likely to get good GCSEs and go on to higher education as the below statistics from Teach First show. The effects of this slow start can last a lifetime, widening social inequality.
- In England and Wales, we spend nearly £17 billion a year dealing with problems that start in childhood.
- 14.6 per cent of English children have Special Educational Needs and these children are more likely to experience poverty than their peers.
- In general, students living in poverty are four times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than their peers.
- A child from a disadvantaged background is 18 months behind when they take their GCSEs.
- Young people living in more deprived areas are more likely to report lower life satisfaction than those living in less deprived areas.
- Only 33% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieve five good GCSEs compared to 60.5% overall.
Identifying the barriers that exist in your school
Schools have an important role to play. They can really make a difference by creating an inclusive experience of the school day for children living on a low income. This includes ensuring that their structures, policies and practices do not identify, exclude, treat differently or make assumptions about those living in poverty.
All school leaders can begin by identifying and understanding any barriers that exist in their school. ‘Turning a page on Poverty’, an educational guide from the National Educational Union (The NEU), provides free template surveys that can be used to try and understand some of the income-related barriers that might exist in your school.
Hearing from parents and carers is an important part of the process and will help your school to check whether school costs are causing concerns for families. These surveys also give school staff an opportunity to think about costs and highlight any good practice already happening in the school. In addition to completing the survey, it’s important to allow space and time to discuss these topics as a staff group, so solutions can be identified, and action taken.
Free staff survey template.
Free parent and carers survey template.
Poverty Proofing the School Day
Children North East’s Poverty Proofing the School Day project supports schools to identify and overcome the barriers to learning faced by children and young people from families with fewer financial resources. Its team of poverty proofing experts supports schools with an audit, asking students, staff, parents and governors how they think poverty affects the school day. The resulting action plan is tailored to each school to address any unintended stigmatising policies or practices, and to celebrate and share excellent practice.
“Poverty proofing is about us working with and supporting school leaders to really understand what it means to be a child in their school who is experiencing poverty. We carry out in-depth conversations with children and young people to gain their perspectives on their educational experience and how their school supports them to overcome any barriers to learning. Through these conversations, we celebrate the good practice the school community is already doing and work with the school to develop a tailored set of recommendations that support the needs of the children and families in their school.”
Luke Bramhall, School Research and Delivery Service Manager, Children North East
A whole school approach to poverty: Who and how?
It’s important for school leaders to develop an ethos that seeks to ensure that all children have an equitable experience of the school day regardless of their family’s financial background, and the NEU argues a whole school approach is the most effective way of achieving this.
Children and young people are the most important people to consult with about all aspects of the school day. It is only by listening to and understanding the experience of children in our schools that we can start to unpick some of the barriers they face and bring about meaningful change. Explore with pupils ways that allow them to tell staff when they are finding costs difficult, discreetly and without embarrassment. Also, ask yourself what opportunities do you provide at your school for all pupils to share their experience of the school day?
Feedback from parents and carers about additional school costs, notice periods for payments and how communicative and approachable the school is with regards to financial support, is crucial in helping schools to better support families. Normalise talking to pupils and families about money whenever school costs are discussed, and ensure that there is regular signposting to places of support. A signpost of helpful support services is available at the end of this blog.
As key decision-makers in school, the school leadership plays an important role in tackling poverty inside the school gates. Their understanding of how poverty impacts families in their local community and how the school can address this, as well as how the school ethos promotes equity, are important reflection points.
Ensure that all staff, including non-teaching staff, are fully aware of the nature, causes, extent and impact of poverty on children both nationally, locally and within the school. The NEU’s Turning the Page on Poverty toolkit, developed with Children Northeast, is a useful starting point for awareness raising with all staff.
School staff are essentially the first point of contact both for children and families and have valuable insight about how children in your school experience poverty and how it impacts them and their families.
School leaders can help staff to share these meaningful insights by building in time for reflection and training. A full list of OLT training and development opportunities, including our free course Working in Partnership with Parents and Supporting Wellbeing and Mental Health in Schools, can be found on our website.
In conclusion, we know that schools alone cannot solve poverty, but many go to extraordinary lengths in supporting children and their families. Communication is key to providing an equitable experience for all, reducing the risk of children facing stigma among their peers, and a whole school approach normalises talking about poverty and makes it easier for students and families to reach out if they need help.
Further reading for schools
Child Poverty action group: The cost of the school day in England.
Support services for families
Below is a list of support services that aim to help families facing financial difficulties:
Citizens Advice: free, independent and confidential financial advice.
Place2Be offers counselling and therapeutic support to pupils, parents and carers, and staff at the school. Staff can refer pupils, and pupils can refer themselves via a drop-in service.
Magic Breakfast is a national charity that supports schools to provide breakfast to pupils so that no child is too hungry to learn. Magic Breakfast supports the provision of the breakfast club at Surrey Square, alongside some core funding from the school, which ensures it is free of charge and available to all pupils, their parents, siblings and family members.
Citizens UK uses community organising to identify issues on a local or national level that communities feel passionate about and then influences those in government, business and public life to effect change.
LifeSkills: supports people who face barriers getting into work by providing tailored skills training and connecting them to businesses that are recruiting.
EntitledTo a benefit calculator to make sure families are getting the support they are entitled to.
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