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Social Justice

School life leaves children in poverty feeling ‘embarrassed and excluded’

Bake sales, World Book Day and trips are locking children in poverty out of learning and the best of school life, thousands of pupils said.

Children in poverty say they feel embarrassed and excluded at school as they often miss out on trips, new stationery and bake sales.

More than 4,500 pupils of all ages told researchers about the impact of being from a low-income background on their school lives. Children described how the costs of equipment and activities can leave them feeling left out and increase their chances of being bullied by peers.

Around 31 per cent of children in England – or nine in every class of 30 – are growing up in poverty.

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“It’s a free education, but it’s not really free,” one pupil told researchers for Children North East and Child Poverty Action Group, who produced the study.

The report revealed the significant isolating effect of growing up facing hardship, with children in poverty more likely to be left to play alone or having fallings out with friends.

Everyday parts of school life draw visibility to pupils’ family incomes, children said, as well as making them more likely to be penalised by teachers. This included non-uniform days – when some have been accused by peers of wearing clothes which look like they came from a “charity shop” – large-scale events such as World Book Day and the requirement to bring in pencil cases and materials.

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“To school you have to bring a pencil case, planner, calculator, pen, sharpener, ruler, rubber, highlighter,” a secondary school pupil said. “If you don’t have something the teacher gives you a warning or a detention.”

School costs are creating “worry and anxiety” for children as well as impacting family budgets, the experts said, to the extent that some pupils will avoid taking home letters about chargeable trips, clubs and musical lessons to prevent adding to parents’ mental load. Others warned too little notice was given for activities which required payment and were often operated on a first-come-first-served basis.

This means thousands of pupils are missing out on fun and learning at school as well as chances to bond with peers, the report said. They are particularly likely to miss out on learning in subjects like PE, art and design and music, which require children to provide or pay for kit and materials.

Researchers also heard from 840 parents and carers, who reported borrowing money to pay for children’s school costs to prevent them feeling embarrassed or missing out on the experiences their peers had.

The report shines a light on “how some school activities can unintentionally impact pupils from low-income families,” said Leigh Elliot, chief executive of Children North East, “making it harder for them to learn, achieve and be happy at school”.

Many children are going hungry or experiencing stress around breaks and lunch times because the qualifying criteria for free school meals are too narrow, the experts said. Those who do qualify face limited choices in school canteens or till systems which publicly show their free school meals eligibility, increasing stigma, according to the report.

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The solutions-focused study pointed to Lyng Hall School in Coventry which has developed a number of policies to cut food-related pressures for disadvantaged pupils.

These include letting pupils receiving free school meals to use their allowance at any time of day, not just lunch time, and any unspent credit rolls over into the next day. The school also provides free food for families at open evenings and parents’ evenings as well as free breakfasts for any children attending before-school clubs.

Campaigners called on the UK government and Department for Education (DfE) to “recognise the impact” school costs and soaring poverty are having on the fundamental education of children across England.

This must mean reforms to school funding to allow them to offer a “truly free and inclusive education”, they added, as well as extra cash for councils to give families grants for trips and school uniforms.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We continue to deliver year on year, real terms per pupil increases to school funding. In 2022-23 core schools funding will increase by £4bn compared to 2021-22 – a 5% boost in real terms per pupil.

“We are also supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils through Pupil Premium funding, which is increasing to more than £2.6bn in 2022-23 and is the highest in cash terms since this funding began. It is for schools to decide where to spend their funding in order to best support their pupils.”

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