Opinion

Child poverty: School staff seeing more and more children 'too hungry to learn'

What does ever-growing and deepening child poverty mean for the way our schools function and the roles of school staff?

Primary school teacher in the classroom

Kate Antsey, head of education policy at the Child Poverty Action Group, explains how schools are becoming increasingly less about educating students and more about supporting families.

The effects of poverty on children’s learning are well-evidenced, with household income being the strongest statistical predictor of how well a child will do in school. But what does ever-growing and deepening child poverty mean for the way our schools function and the roles of school staff?

Between May and July 2023, the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition surveyed school staff across England working in every school role, from admin staff to head teachers, governors and teaching assistants. We gathered a bird’s eye view of child poverty in schools and the results exposed a worrying picture of entrenched pupil hardship.

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School staff overwhelmingly told us that the poverty they witness is increasing and getting much worse for families. This plays out throughout the school day in a multitude of ways: with more pupils not having enough money for lunch or coming to school in worn-out clothing; more children worrying about their home and housing situations; an increasing number of pupils taking on jobs at the weekend to help with family finances; and clear signs of fatigue and hunger during lessons.

Unsurprisingly, this has a devastating knock-on effect for children’s educations, with school staff telling us that lower income pupils are simply unable to learn in these circumstances and falling further behind than ever before. Any government investment that seeks to close the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their peers is clearly being undermined by other government policies that are explicitly making this problem worse. 

But the survey also highlighted what child poverty means for the way schools work. Over two-thirds of school staff (79%) reported that they and their colleagues’ time is being heavily diverted to poverty-related tasks, and that eats into time for the core parts of their role.

Staff in all roles shared that their days are often sidetracked and an increasing amount of time is spent feeding children who come to school hungry, sourcing uniform for pupils who are wearing ill-fitting clothes, applying for hardship grants and food bank vouchers, locating washing machines for families who are without, sending reminders to families regarding dinner money debt as more and more families can’t afford a school lunch, and following up on school absences with pupils unable to pay for the bus fare. It is great that schools are so trusted, but it’s bad for schools who have other things to do, and kids are paying the highest price with their futures being overlooked by policymakers. 

We asked head teachers to share more examples of how staff time is being warped. One pointed out that if teaching assistants have to come out of class in order to feed the three or four children too hungry that morning to learn, other children in the class lose out because the TA cannot carry out the learning or activities they had planned. Another reported that her two family support workers have already worked over 100 extra hours this year supporting struggling families. Another says she’s had to bring in the equivalent of a full-time post dedicated solely to enabling families to access help – with food, uniforms and debt advice for example – because so many more families who were previously managing now need urgent help. 

With school staff all over the country stepping outside their traditional remits to fight this cause, we asked them what would be needed to make a difference. School staff were clear about the solutions. Working each and every day with families, they know what would work to reduce family hardship and lighten the load that schools carry. Almost all staff told us (82%) that the government must do more to help struggling families directly – schools cannot be expected to solve child poverty alone and in trying to do so, they are being pushed to their limits. 

Staff in all roles clearly identified that more attention must be paid to tackling the root cause of child poverty. Families need more money and this needs a long-term plan and investment. As a start, 80% of staff want to see the roll-out of universal free school meals to all schoolchildren, the current threshold is wholly inadequate and results in classroom hunger – politicians cannot keep ignoring this. Most (63%) also want more support for low- and middle-income families who’ve been hit by the cost of living crisis. This could be achieved through increasing child benefit, a payment that reaches all families in this group but that has been cut in recent years, meaning it’s lost 25% of its value since 2010. Finally, a majority of school staff (68%) want families to get more government help with school-related costs like uniform and trips. 

We all agree schools should be a place where children’s learning and development is prioritised and a vital hub for community activities. But this is becoming harder and harder for schools, as poverty rips through their communities and more families are in need of support. While poverty in school prevails, everyone loses out – inaction is a political choice and compromises schools, children and their futures. 

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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