The State of Education: Child Poverty

Increased concern about worsening levels of child poverty and its impact on learning, according to survey of NEU members.

In advance of the National Education Union’s annual conference, held in Liverpool this week (15-18 April), more than 8,000 teachers, school leaders and support staff from across the UK have made clear their views on the State of Education and the conditions they are having to work under. Results will be released over the course of conference.

Today we focus on the survey findings connected to child poverty.

Education professionals are reporting a significant increase in the visibility of child poverty in their school/college and provided us with many distressing examples from daily life. In-work poverty, housing issues such as high rents, homelessness and insecurity, as well as fears about how matters would deteriorate with Universal Credit, are common factors. They are having a parlous effect on the learning of children living in poverty.

This situation is compounded by the education funding crisis which means schools and colleges can, reluctantly, do less and less to attempt to counter the impacts of poverty on young people's education. There is a clear link, too, with the austerity agenda of successive Conservative governments.


Members are deeply concerned by the effects of poverty and low income on the learning of their students, with an overwhelming 91% agreeing it to be a factor. Half the survey respondents feel it is a significant factor.

To a large extent

To some extent


SQA Conveyancing Qualifications

To a small extent

No impact

Don't know






This is a view consistently held across primary, secondary and college sectors. If independent providers are excluded from aggregate figures, some 97% of respondents in maintained schools, academies, free schools and further education establishments said that poverty affects their students’ learning. And over half (52%) of these respondents said the effect was large.


Since 2016, members have noticed a change in the “presence and effect” of poverty or low income on pupils/students in their workplace. The overall figures are as follows:

  • Half of respondents (50%) believe things have got worse or significantly worse.
  • Less than a third (30%) described the situation as consistent with 2016
  • Just 2% described an improved situation.

This deterioration is slightly more marked in primary schools:

Row Labels

Yes, things have got much better

Yes, things have got better

No, things have stayed about the same

Yes, things have got worse

Yes, things have got significantly worse

Don’t know






















One respondent said: “The poverty gap has clearly got bigger. The number of students displaying difficult behaviours has increased and poverty is most certainly a factor.”

A significant number of members described a widespread concern about school uniforms:

“Several wear clothing that is ill-fitting or not clean. Shoes are often ill-fitting or very worn, coats are often inadequate for weather.”

“We have bought uniform items and pretend they are from students who have grown out of them.”

“Children coming to school with holes in their shoes or cheap shoes which are not weather proof. Children attending school with no coats, no socks and without other essential items of clothing.”

“Dress-up days can be… a very sad day. The rich children show off and those struggling with finances are really noticed by the other children… so they may decide not to attend school on that day.”

“Food banks are an everyday necessity as is the market for either free or second-hand uniform. Parents have no spare money and children are suffering.”


When asked in a multiple-choice question to identify the impacts on learning that could be attributed to poverty, over three-quarters of respondents told us that their students demonstrated fatigue (78%), poor concentration (76%) or poor behaviour (75%).

More than half of members said their students had experienced hunger (57%) or ill health (50%) as a result of poverty, and more than a third (35%) said students had been bullied because of it.

“Overcrowding in homes, so children do not have space to do homework.”

“Far more students are finding it harder to concentrate.”

“Most of my class arrive at school hungry and thirsty.”

“Some students have mentioned that they have not had any food for two days, some come without having breakfast and with no dinner money but are not on free school meals.” 

“Their social and emotional needs are not being met and this is having detrimental effects on their learning and behaviour.”

“Lack of funding in real terms means my school has to stop providing things such as free breakfast.”

Commenting on the survey results, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“Government does not want to hear these stories from the frontline of teaching, but they must. It is truly shaming for the UK, one of the richest countries in the world. A decade of austerity has only served to place more children in poverty, while at the same time destroying the support structures for poor families. This was an ideological strategy and the findings of this survey are its effects. Put simply, the Government is failing to recognise the human costs of its actions.

“Government must stop blaming schools for the impact of its austerity policies upon the most vulnerable in our society and take action to alleviate the suffering of the increasing numbers who are living in poverty.”

 Our survey of 8,674 members in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was conducted between 28 March and 3 April 2019. Over half of the respondents (53%) are classroom teachers and around a quarter (26%) are in head of department or leadership roles, including head teachers. The sample works in a range of school/college settings, including primary (37%) and secondary (42%).

Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi said:

“Tackling disadvantage will always be a priority for this government. Employment is at a record high and wages are outstripping inflation, but we know some families need more help.

“While all infant children can benefit from our Universal Infant Free School Meals programme, we are making sure that more than a million of the most disadvantaged children are also accessing free school meals throughout their education – saving families around £400 per year. We are also investing £9million to give more access to holiday clubs where they can benefit from activities and a nutritious meal during the school break.”

Further Background from DfE:

Employment is at a record high, wages are outstripping inflation and absolute poverty is lower than in 2010. 

Benefits-based free meals were extended to disadvantaged further education students in September 2014.

We spend around £600 million per year ensuring an additional 1.5 million infants enjoy a free, healthy and nutritious meal at lunchtime following the introduction of the Universal Infant Free School Meal policy in 2014.

Transitional protections were put in place to ensure no child will lose their eligibility for FSM during the rollout of Universal Credit. All children receiving FSM at the point the threshold was introduced on 1 April 2018, and all those who gain eligibility as Universal Credit rolls out, will continue to receive FSM until the end of the roll-out. After this point, these children – if they are still in school – will continue to be protected until the end of their phase of education.

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