'There is only so much we can do' - school staff in England

Post date: 
19 September 2023

4.2 million children in the UK are growing up in poverty. That’s 9 children in an average classroom of 30. The causal relationship between child poverty and educational outcomes is well established, with children from lower-income households less likely to achieve than their more affluent peers. This results in unequal life chances and futures, with children growing up in poverty earning less as adults.

People working in schools witness the impact of poverty on children and families on a daily basis, and the scale and severity of the problem mean schools are reeling up against it. To understand exactly how child poverty affects the whole school system in England, the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition, convened by Child Poverty Action Group, has conducted a first-of-its-kind survey of professionals working in every role in schools in England. The survey, completed by over 1,000 professionals, represents the views of head teachers, senior leaders, teachers, governors, teaching support staff, administrators, catering teams and facilities managers. By asking all members of school staff, we’ve gathered a unique and full picture of the effects of child poverty, and conclude that it leaves no part of children’s learning and the school system untouched.

The results show that child poverty in schools is getting worse and increasingly stealing children’s learning, with school staff reporting that pupils are frequently tired and hungry, worried, unable to concentrate, and without the equipment they need to engage with the curriculum. School staff are also being heavily diverted from other parts of their roles as they seek to address the poverty-related needs of their school community. This often means going beyond their remit and skillset. This is bad for schools, and children are paying the highest price.

  • 79 per cent of school staff say they and their colleagues increasingly have less time and capacity for other parts of their roles because of the effects of child poverty.
  • 74 per cent of school staff say there is evidence that children in poverty are falling further behind than previously at school.
  • 80 per cent of school staff say providing universal free school meals to all school children would reduce child poverty in their school.

Schools are also facing a tidal wave of other challenges: funding pressures leading to major staff cuts; rising costs; old and failing buildings, severe underfunding for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities; and dramatic cuts to other services. Schools are trying to plug all the gaps without the required resources. However, school staff are adamant that while child poverty continues to rip through the education system, everyone loses out.

The survey finds that the vast majority of professionals working in England’s schools want the government to do more to tackle child poverty. Addressing child poverty, primarily by increasing family incomes, must be a central thread to any government’s education strategy, enabling children to learn and lifting an enormous weight off schools. School staff have also identified immediate steps for government to take that would go some way to reducing poverty and hardship among children, helping pupils to learn and enabling staff to focus on the core part of their roles:

  1. Expanding free school meals entitlement. School staff are seeing increased levels of hunger at school and are emphatically calling for free school meals to be provided to all school children to help address this. CPAG estimates that rolling out universal free school meals in England would cost around £2 billion.
  2. Increasing financial support to low-income and middle-income families. To significantly reduce child poverty and its impact on schools and pupils, school staff clearly identify that families need more money. This can be achieved through increasing child benefit. Increasing child benefit by £20 a week would see 500,000 children pulled out of poverty, at a cost of £10 billion.
  3. Providing more support with school costs eg, school uniforms and trips. Providing direct support to lower-income families with school costs would take the financial strain off parents, lighten the load for school staff and enable pupils to make the most of school life. As a first step, support with uniform costs through the introduction of a nationally-available uniform grant for eligible families would be a significant help.