Tackling Child Poverty in Schools: a role for school librarians?
Child poverty in the UK
Child poverty in the UK is rising. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that child poverty will rise from the current level of 4.1 million to 5.2 million by 2021/22. This is largely due to cuts in the social security system that many children and families rely on. At the same time, other public services have seen significant cutbacks, which can leave families struggling on low incomes with little support.
Increasing child poverty is worrying for schools, because poverty at home is the strongest statistical predictor of how well a child will achieve at school. On average poorer children have worse cognitive, socio-behavioural, physical, and mental health than their better-off peers. They are less likely to do well at school; in 2015 only 33% of students eligible for free school meals got five ‘good’ passes at GCSE (A*-C) compared with 61% of those not eligible. Poorer children are more likely to be persistently absent and four times more likely to be permanently excluded from school, with obvious impacts for their education. Evidence suggests that these impacts are both a result of direct deprivation (e.g. inadequate housing leading to poor sleep or lack of space to do homework, difficulties providing healthy food, less ability to afford computers and extracurricular activities) and the impact of coping with poverty on parents’ mental health.
Whilst this paints a depressing picture, schools don’t have to wait for direction from central government to take action on child poverty. On a local level, there is much that can be done by schools and other key public services to tackle child poverty. At CPAG we have been involved in some projects that focus on working with schools to prevent and mitigate the impact of child poverty on children’s education.
Tackling child poverty in schools
In 2018, we were commissioned by the Greater London Authority to conduct a small-scale research project looking at the role of London schools in tackling child poverty. In partnership with a small number of primary schools CPAG reviewed and tested different activities in schools that were designed to support children and families from low-income households.
Activities in schools were varied, for example welfare rights advice for parents in schools to help maximise family income, support for families with no recourse to public funds and information sessions for parents about financial help with childcare. In addition, many of the schools we worked with had an established ‘extended schools’ programme, including breakfast and after school clubs. These can be particularly beneficial for children and families on a low income because they allow parents to work outside limited school hours and raise family incomes, boosting the attainment of disadvantaged children through activities, and providing children with healthy food.
There is some key learning for schools from this project: it’s important to ask children, parents and the wider school community about the support families on a low income might need rather than making assumptions; and there is great value in a ‘targeted universal’ approach with activities open to all children with extra steps taken to engage disadvantaged children, rather than specific programmes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds which in practice are stigmatising.
Schools were clear that this work isn’t without challenges: funding, establishing good leadership, and engaging the families who would benefit most were all identified as potential hurdles. However, for those schools who had established programmes of support for families living in poverty the benefits were obvious to all, as one teacher put it:
There is a recognition that it is very difficult to teach children in the classroom if their lives are very difficult outside of the classroom. We have a duty to support families with these issues.
Cost of the School Day
In Scotland, CPAG is supporting schools and local authorities to understand and tackle the barriers that school costs can create for children from low income households. School costs, such as uniform, equipment, and costs for school activities and trips can place barriers in the way of children’s participation and learning. They can lead to income-related exclusion and stigma among children and young people, place pressure on low family budgets and further reduce stretched family incomes.
The Cost of the School Day project works directly with school communities and also provides training, support and advice to practitioners and local authorities looking to mitigate the effects of child poverty in schools. CPAG has created the Cost of the School Day Toolkit, an online resource for schools to help them work with children and young people, families and staff to consider the costs of the school day. There are a number of actions schools can take to reduce costs and level the playing field for children and young people from low-income households, many of which directly engage the work of school librarians.
A role for school librarians?
Children and young people involved in our Cost of the School Day project in Scotland identified a number of ways that school libraries can provide support to children and families on low incomes:
- ICT was identified as a particular issue that can cause barriers for children who may not have access to the internet at home to help with home learning. Being able to access ICT facilities over lunchtime and after school in libraries was seen as a way to help with this.
- Longer library opening hours in secondary schools was suggested as another way libraries can support students to complete homework and other academic tasks.
- Lending resources and equipment and doing this in a way that is stigma-free (open access and there for everyone rather than being visibly given to certain students) can help ensure students are able to participate in extra-curricular activities like sports and games clubs.
- Providing homework clubs, supported study and drop-in sessions can help students who might need some additional help.
These are small steps, but our Cost of the School Day Project, and our research with London schools has shown that collectively they can make a huge difference to a child’s experience of education.
A version of this blog was first published by the School Library Association