Learning lessons from last lockdown: what helps school children and families on low incomes

Published on: 
14 January 2021
Written by: 
As a second lockdown begins, school buildings and playgrounds across Scotland are once again closed, and families face more home learning. We all know 2020 was an incredibly difficult year for many of us, but for those living on lower incomes the extra pressure has made maintaining family life even harder. Covid-19 job losses and income drops have hit already struggling families hard, and pushed many into poverty. Over the last 10 months, schools have seen more and more of their children and families facing the stress, anxiety and relentless pressures involved in living on a low income or in poverty.
Last lockdown we asked children, young people and parents what was helping them cope during school closures, and what could be better. Over 4000 children and parents responded to our survey, and we really appreciate that so many people took the time to tell us about their experiences. What children and parents told us was vitally important, and helped inform schools, local authorities and government about what families were dealing with, and what was helping them through. As we enter a second lockdown what we were told remains crucial to understanding how school at home should work for everyone, and provides a clear set of actions to take forward.

So what was most important to families while schools were closed?

1. Providing devices and resources is crucial to help children and young people learn and stay connected.

40% of low-income families in our research were missing at least one essential resource. Most often this meant ICT equipment like computers, tablets, printers or access to the internet. Items like stationery and paper were also needed – when you don’t have money to spare, even what seems like a small cost is unmanageable.

Families reported feeling frustrated, cut off and disengaged.

“We don’t have a laptop or computer. All the work assigned is meant to be done online, which isn’t an option for us. Unfortunately, my daughter can’t access the same online lessons as the other children.” (Lone parent of two children)

Since the last school closures, there has been more time to plan remote learning with the needs of children on low incomes in mind. However does every child in every school in Scotland have equal access to the resources they need to learn?

“I need computer to do my assignment. Five of us share one computer in the family.” (Young woman aged 15)

There’s been national investment in devices and connectivity for disadvantaged pupils, and local efforts to roll out equipment, but gaps will remain. We need to work to understand where these gaps are and fill them, if we want children and young people on low incomes to engage with learning on anything like a level playing field with their peers.

“I've been lent a chromebook which is easier as before there were 3 of us trying to share 1 laptop to get work done.” (Boy aged 13)

2. Parents appreciate being asked what resources are needed without assumptions about financial circumstances.

We know that talking about money and costs can be difficult, but parents told us how much they appreciated it when their schools took the time to check in, and provide information and support. The last year has shown that job loss, income drops and financial vulnerability are a heartbeat away for many of us. Where we are now, in a rapidly changing situation, the usual income indicators such as free meal entitlement, SIMD data, employment status or prior knowledge may not be enough. Hannah, one of the parents we spoke with last year, told us why we shouldn’t assume we understand anyone’s circumstances.

“I think people make an assumption because you’re in work or whatever else that you would just have these things [devices]. That was actually not the case but nobody asked. I’d imagine some people wouldn’t want to lose face by asking the question themselves. So if they asked everybody, you know, what is it you need, that would open up a few more conversations.”

3. Free school meal replacements were really valued by parents, with direct cash payments rather than vouchers or food packages working best. Information and support to access free meals and other financial entitlements helps families, some of whom are dealing with this for the first time.

Last time round, free school meal replacements meant that many families were able to ‘stay afloat’ financially. A significant number of people told us that they appreciated a straightforward application or automated processes in stressful times. The overwhelming message from families was that direct payments rather than vouchers or food packages worked best for them. That way they could choose shops they are able to get to that offer good value, buy the food their children want, and shop where they felt safe.

“I can buy food from anywhere for them because I am not restricted in any way of how and where I spend the money. I can make a little go a long way.” (Lone parent of three children)

CPAG supports the use of cash payments instead of vouchers or food parcels. What we heard from hundreds of parents reinforced our view that cash payments provided choice, dignity, and convenience at a difficult time. We have been delighted to see that more local authorities are moving to this delivery method and urge others to do the same.

“Cash payments take the embarrassment factor out of it, we don’t need to queue for food bags or receive vouchers, we don’t feel ashamed for needing help this way. “ (Mum of one)

“No need to apply, they just did it, which was really helpful as it was one less task for me to try and sort out at stressful time. Aside from financial side, it was a good feeling that someone was looking out for us when things are difficult.” (Lone parent)

4. Poverty awareness and kindness is crucial for families and poverty sensitive approaches, policies and practices at school can help.

Parents and their children told us about the difference schools can make when they truly understand what poverty means and how it feels for children and families living in its grip. Before Covid19 we had seen that when schools commit to reducing costs and removing financial pressures, they make a really significant difference to children and their families. While the benefits of this are most obvious in times of crisis, they’re no less important in more ‘normal’ times.

“The school has been fantastic at providing all the websites, numbers etc for charities and support systems. With constant reassurance if we need any help then to just get in contact with themselves and they will do the best they can to help.” (Mum of child aged 8)

A quarter of Scotland’s children were living in poverty even before Covid19. Costs for things like uniform, lunch, trips, transport, resources, clubs and fun events add to financial pressures and can leave them feeling different or excluded. Cost of the School Day approaches can help to cut costs for families, maximise incomes and make sure that all children and young people can take part, regardless of income, now and in the future.

School closures are hard for everyone, but they’re especially hard for families on low incomes. We know from last lockdown that resources, care, support and information from schools and local authorities acted as a lifeline for families. Thanks to children and parents telling us what worked and what helped, we now have a clear set of measures and guidelines that we know make life out of school a little easier.

Let’s learn from last time, let’s listen to what we know children and families on low incomes want and need most and take action.

“I think it’s good because you don’t want anyone left out. It’s just unfair if someone got more than someone else.” (Girl, aged 9)



Do you want to take a CoSD approach in your school?

Our website provides advice, guidance and resources: cpag.org.uk/cost-of-the-school-dayre.

You can download the full report for Scotland here.

Our toolkit comprehensively covers the steps towards becoming a Cost of the School Day school.

You’ll find us on Twitter @CPAGScotland #CostoftheSchoolDay

Our email address is: [email protected]