Last reviewed 4 August 2023

Schools understand the devastating impact that experiencing poverty has upon a significant percentage of their pupils, and that economic disadvantage creates many barriers to learning. Whilst schools' ability to mitigate the issues around living in poverty is limited, Kate Goulson looks at some of the steps that can be taken to confront this ever-present concern.

How many children are living in poverty in the UK?

The numbers around UK childhood poverty remain shockingly high. Recent statistics identify an estimated 4.2 million children living in “relative” poverty (in a household with 60% or less of the UK median income) which equates to 29% of all dependent children aged 0–19, or an average of nine children in a class of 30. 

These figures have stayed relatively constant over the last decade, but individual regions see sharp variations and the number of children living in poverty within working families is rising, with the majority (74%) now living with at least one working parent.

How can experiencing poverty affect a child’s education?

Experiencing poverty has the potential to make every aspect of a child’s life harder. Associated issues, such as insecure housing, poor diet, household disruption, mental and physical health problems, and a shortage of resources for clothing, equipment, recreation and self-care, can cause extreme stress and have a detrimental effect upon a child’s wellbeing.

Living in poverty can, in some cases, affect whether a child gets enough sleep or adequate nutrition, and the prolonged household stress associated with economic hardship can induce a “fight or flight” state which negatively impacts a child’s ability to learn and thrive. Children vulnerable to living in poverty are more likely to miss school and are more vulnerable to both fixed-term and permanent school exclusion. All these factors contribute towards the persistent attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

How can schools identify pupils who are vulnerable to living in poverty?

Schools must tread a fine line between identifying children vulnerable to living in poverty, in order to provide targeted support, and not “othering” them within the school community.

The Free School Meals (FSM) initiative provides midday meals to eligible pupils and gives schools a degree of insight into which children are vulnerable to living in poverty. The allocation of FSM is dependent on a family already receiving certain benefits, rather than simply being on a lower household income. Children in families receiving the required benefits do not receive FSM automatically; each family must apply independently and at their own discretion. If eligible families do not apply, those eligible children won’t receive this benefit. 

The Pupil Premium programme identifies children vulnerable to living in poverty via the criteria of having been eligible for FSM within the past six years, or being (or having been) looked after by the local authority. Schools are then given funding based on the number of eligible pupils in their cohort which can be used in a variety of ways, from offering targeted support to specific children (including those with needs outside of Pupil Premium eligibility) to implementing whole-school measures such as developing high-quality teaching, improving attendance, providing extra-curricular activities, and extending school provision before and after school and during holidays.

Despite offering an overview of the percentage of disadvantaged pupils within each school, and identifying certain individuals in need of targeted support, these measures are not comprehensive in identifying all children who may be experiencing poverty, as they do not necessarily cover children who are eligible for FSM whose families have not applied.

What other measures are in place to address poverty in schools?

There have been several additional initiatives over the years to confront poverty in schools. The implementation of free school meals for every child in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 as part of the Children and Families Act in 2014 (a separate initiative from the means-tested Free School Meals programme) was a huge step in mitigating food poverty for young children, providing midday meals for every child in infants school. Four- to six-year-olds are also entitled to a daily serving of fruit or vegetables as part of the Department of Health-administered School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme (SFVS), and there is subsidised provision for access to low-cost milk during the school day.

Local authorities are given funding to provide free home-to-school travel for children receiving FSM, or certain other household benefits, if they attend a school which is difficult to reach on foot, and the Holiday Activity and Food (HAF) programme provides funded childcare and food for children from low-income families during school holidays.

There is also funding for free personal hygiene and period products to be made available within school. This can help remove a significant barrier to learning for pupils who miss school when menstruating due to a lack of access to such products.

As part of the Every Child Matters government initiative, published in 2003, funding was allocated for the Extended Schools programme which put in place several measures to relieve financial pressures on disadvantaged families. These included:

  • low-cost or free extra-curricular activities

  • wraparound, subsidised in-school childcare, including breakfast, after-school and homework clubs, as well as school holiday provision

  • parental support and family learning opportunities, including parenting classes

  • community access to using school facilities, such as theatres, playing fields and indoor spaces, for training or events

  • targeted signposting towards further support, alongside support services provided within school, such as occupational therapy or mental health services.

Although the ring-fenced funding for this programme ended in 2011 in England, a version of the scheme has continued in Northern Ireland, and many schools across the UK have carried on offering a selection of these services which go towards mitigating some of the inequalities caused by living in poverty.

What else can schools do to confront poverty? 

Alongside ensuring that targeted support is in place through measures funded via Pupil Premium, a holistic “poverty proofing” approach benefits all economically vulnerable children, whether individually identified as experiencing poverty or not.

The concept of poverty proofing originated with organisations such as Children North East and has been widely adopted over recent years. The idea centres around giving children a voice to set out their needs, removing poverty-driven barriers to learning and ensuring equal access to the curriculum and wider school experience for all children, regardless of household income. It incorporates teaching pupils about social inequalities and structures, ensuring equal academic opportunities and providing a range of additional services on-site. 

Specific poverty proofing measures can include the following.

  • A uniform policy which has reduced requirements for items that include a school logo, a flexible attitude to where uniform may be purchased, low-cost or subsidised uniform available via school, and free second-hand items. This can help ensure equality of access to school clothing for all families. Rejecting the need for a standardised uniform altogether is another option, although this can lead to “othering” as disadvantaged children have differing access to high fashion and other desirable items.

  • Inclusive non-uniform days which minimise economic disparity by focusing on a specific aspect of attire, rather than the entire outfit, can reduce the pressure on lower-income families to purchase costly high-fashion items. This could be an Odd Sock Day (as is suggested for Anti-Bullying Week), wearing one item of a certain colour, or non-clothing ideas like “Crazy Hair Day”. For dress-up days inspired by curriculum themes, schools can put aside time to make items in school such as masks, which can be worn on the day, rather than expecting families to provide costumes.

  • Providing school equipment (including stationery, exercise books, art supplies, etc), either within the classroom or as individual pupil packs, ensures that all pupils have access to what they need.

  • Taking great care around charges made for school trips, and giving as much notice as possible of any costs, gives families more time to plan ahead and means that more children from lower-income families have the opportunity to attend.

  • Free and subsidised after-school clubs. Some schools offer subsidised extra-curricular activities, which can help lower-income families to cover the costs. Other schools provide clubs completely free of charge, meaning that all children have access to them regardless of income.

  • Food banks on school premises can provide vital supplies to the most vulnerable pupils and their families. These services are often run voluntarily by school staff and do not usually have access to separate funding.

Poverty and safeguarding

Living in poverty is not, in itself, a safeguarding concern, and many families living in poverty move mountains to protect children from experiencing its worst effects. However, poverty can contribute to issues which are separate safeguarding concerns, including extreme stress and anxiety, basic needs not being met, or repeated absence from school. Some children experiencing poverty won’t have these issues, whilst others may experience them for reasons other than living in poverty, but the connections are important to be aware of.

Further reading