In late November 2018, we conducted a nationwide poll of 1,026 NUS members which canvassed their views on the impact of childhood poverty within schools. We were concerned that the situation was already grave, with significant numbers of children living under the poverty line – but what surprised us in the responses we received was that the picture in relation to children’s lack of clothing and food is becoming worse.
Many teachers wanted to tell us about coats and shoes. More than once, we read of children who had asked their teachers for help in fixing their shoes with Sellotape, elastic bands and glue, because they knew their parents couldn’t afford to buy them a new pair and they didn’t want to worry them.
What surprised us less was that schools remain extremely worried about their budgets. Teachers and heads told us about measures they had put in place to try and support families struggling on very low incomes.
There is an acute awareness in their schools of how vital that support is, and the funding needed to provide it, but that funding is now at risk. A number of schools told us that they had been providing additional food for families in poverty, but were no longer able to do so because of funding cuts.
We know that many individual teachers are spending their own money on food for children, particularly in primary schools. We know of teachers who have paid for sports equipment and classroom items out of their own pockets, and of some who have passed on clothes from their own children.
Another area of considerable concern is the lack of funding for pastoral support. Children in poverty need people checking that they’re okay. They need teachers with enough capacity to follow up on what might have happened to them at the weekend, or to pick up on warning signs based on what the child may or may not be saying.
But these pastoral systems inevitably require time investment on the part of teachers and classroom assistants if they’re to be run well. Staffing reductions driven by those funding cuts have led to withdrawals of pastoral support that’s very often linked to children who are vulnerable and from families falling below the poverty line.
I think it’s legitimate to highlight the level of emotional pressure all this can have on teachers and heads, who will have originally have entered the profession to support young people. Having had to witness such levels of deprivation, only to then see the funding needed to address the issue pared back, many have come to the conclusion that the government is seriously out of touch.
Part of our intention with this poll was to check that we were up to date and confident in the basis of our policy, so one of the things we asked was what issues impacted on children’s education the most as a result of poverty The issue cited most frequently, by 85% of respondents, was behaviour – after all, it’s harder to be motivated, pay attention and sit quietly if you’re hungry, cold or haven’t slept well.
Absence came second, cited by 83%. One teacher told us that after spells of heavy rain, the absence rate in their school would worsen due to children not having spare clothes and shoes that would be dry the following day. This is serious – if children can’t attend school, we’re reducing their entitlement to education.
Schools should be constantly asking whether they have done enough to understand their pupil intake and the context of the families belonging to their community. They can be occasions, such World Book Day, where children are asked to dress up and bring in charitable donations, which for some families will be extremely challenging.
We’re aware of some interesting initiatives that have been organised in the North East, which are aimed at ‘poverty-proofing’ the school day. These involve looking at certain aspects of schools’ regular activities that can be potentially shaming for pupils who live in low income families.
There are steps that schools can take to ensure they handle such situations sensitively – simply asking for voluntary contributions towards sports trips or day trips will place a tough burden on those families who are struggling.
However, these points have to be placed within the wider context of school funding cuts. Many headteachers would prefer not to engage in these types of fundraising activities, but simply feel they haven’t got any choice.
We know of heads who are all too aware that some of their families will struggle to contribute and worry that they’re letting their child down, but fundraising is something that certain schools simply have to do. Not for PTA activities or ancillary extras, but for core elements of their education offering.
Many primary heads have already spoken out and said that these funding cuts have got to stop – that they’re undermining the quality of education, as well as schools’ ability to challenge inequality and respond to the wide range of life experiences that young people can be deeply affected by.
It’s our view, it’s important that more primary heads feel able to join them and see challenging these funding cuts as something that it’s okay to do. We want to see educators come together and send the message to government that schools can’t be run with budgets as they currently are.
Challenging the funding cuts has to be the priority, because of their impact on children’s mental health and experiences of living in poverty. However, we’re also intent on continuing to highlight the harsh realities for many children, in a way that doesn’t feel shaming or embarrassing. Heads that we’ve spoken to are very clear about this – these are proud families who are working really hard to give their kids a great start in life.
Because much of what we’re talking about is actually in-work poverty, which is why we also have to highlight the need for a higher living wage, and restore the protections that a good social security system must provide to all of us if we fall on hard times.
We know what drives child poverty, and we know what policies reduce it. What the government must do now is make responsible choices and listen to those primary headteachers who are proud, but concerned advocates of their local communities.
Voices from the frontline
Selected quotes from respondents the NEU’s November poll.
- “One student wore his trousers backwards as he didn’t want anyone to know he had holes in the knees.”
- “We are having more incidents of food being stolen from lunch boxes – I have to keep them in my classroom now to stop this happening.”
- “We run our own food bank sourced by students and staff within the school. We have had to provide laundry facilities for some students to wash their uniform.”
Ros McNeil is an assistant general secretary of the NEU.