Children have told us time and time again that poverty gets in the way of being able to make the most of learning and school life. And the data backs this up – children who live in homes with less money are less likely to do well at school.
It is therefore deeply disappointing that yesterday's Schools White Paper, Opportunity for All, does little to address one of the biggest challenges for pupils in England today: child poverty. How can we expect children to be able to engage in lessons if they are worried about not having lunch, can’t afford the right calculator for maths, cannot complete English homework because they don’t have a quiet space at home or a laptop and are constantly burdened by trying to hide this from their peers?
While child poverty endures, schools will forever be on the back foot as they try to support these pupils – and the pandemic has only made matters worse. New targets for literacy and numeracy on their own cannot undo this.
Of course, the most effective way to substantially reduce child poverty is by increasing family incomes and reducing the costs they face. But reforms in education policy can have a significant effect on child poverty and a White Paper is an opportunity to reset policies and outline an ambition for our children that matches the scale of the problem. But that opportunity has been missed.
More funding is clearly needed. Our extensive research with pupils and families shows that children are often locked out of schooling because of the costs associated with it – that includes the cost of school food, learning resources, trips, school uniform and participation in fun events. If the government wants ‘Opportunity for all’ it must make education more equitable for all and take action to tackle child poverty.
What’s more, the White Paper was a chance to invest in before and after-school activities that we know benefit all children but disproportionately so those living in poverty, while also supporting parents to work. Instead, we’ve seen a commitment to a 32.5-hour school week, without any additional funding or a framework to enhance access to a wider range of opportunities such as music, sports and arts. Most schools already deliver a 32.5-hour week, so this is of little consequence to them and won’t make much difference to children living in poverty.
The government is right to want to make sure every child can reach the full height of their potential and that schools are a place of Opportunity for All. But this White Paper falls far short and is no response to one of the biggest challenges that prevents children from thriving at school - child poverty.