From education to employment

School staff forced off core roles to cope with child poverty

kids learning in a class room
  • First-of-its kind-survey finds 79% of school staff in England say time must be diverted from allocated roles to combat child poverty
  • 68% school staff say more pupils don’t have money for enough food at lunchtime
  • 74% school staff say there’s evidence that children growing up in poverty have fallen further behind their peers in learning
  • 70% of head teachers say more parents asking for help with essentials like food and clothing
  • 82% school staff say government should do more for struggling families

Schools are reeling in the face of rising child poverty with a large majority of staff (79%) reporting that they and their colleagues are increasingly having to divert from their allocated roles to deal with its impact, a wide-scale survey by the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition reveals.  Over half (53%) of teachers report an increase in the number of pupils struggling to concentrate on learning due to hunger and fatigue, compared to two years ago.  More than two thirds (68%) of all school staff, including support staff, say there are more pupils who don’t have money for enough food at lunchtimes.

The first-of-its-kind-survey of 1,000-plus professionals working in every role in schools in England was organised by the coalition which is convened by Child Poverty Action Group.  The survey results, which represent the views of head teachers, senior leaders, teachers, governors, teaching support staff, administrators, catering teams and facilities managers, reveal a stark picture of schools increasingly dragged off their traditional remit as more pupils arrive in school not only hungry but worried about money and without the equipment they need to engage with the curriculum. The research shows that no part of the school system is untouched by child poverty. 

The survey found:

  • Almost all (89%) staff say child poverty in their school has increased in the last two academic years. (97% of head teachers/senior leaders, 95% of governors).
  • 88% of school staff say more families in their school who previously appeared to be managing financially are now struggling to cope. 
  • Three-quarters of school staff (74 per cent) say there is evidence that children growing up in poverty have fallen further behind their peers in learning in the last two years, compared to previous years
  • While 79% of all staff say they and their colleagues are increasingly having to divert to poverty-mitigation tasks – for example dealing with dinner money debt, referrals to specialist services and sourcing food bank vouchers, hardship grants, children’s clothes and even home equipment like washing machines for families – this rises to 92% among headteachers.   At the same time, 51% of school staff say schools have less capacity to support struggling families and children, with staffing cuts cited as one reason for this.

School staff in every role across England say they are noticing more families struggling with uniform and P.E. kit requirements (78%) and more children coming to school in ill-fitting or worn-out clothes (72%). Three quarters (76%) of secondary school staff say more pupils don’t have all the equipment they need for lessons.

Asked which policies would have the biggest effect on reducing child poverty in their school:

  • 80% of school staff said providing universal free school meals to all school children.
  • Nearly two in three (63 per cent) said increasing the amount of financial support low-income and middle-income families with children receive.
  • Sixty-eight per cent said more government help for families with school costs such as uniform and school trips.

School staff responding to the survey said:

‘Two pupils [were] caught stealing food from other pupils’ lunchboxes.’(Primary governor, South West)

‘Children come to school concerned about their housing and home situations.’ (Primary governor, Yorkshire and the Humber)

‘More children are expressing feeling worried about their family finances… Some children tell me they avoid asking their parents for essential equipment, or telling them about clubs and trips, as they do not want to add to their financial stress.’ (Secondary, Pupil support and Welfare, West Midlands)

‘Children [are] tired and lethargic, extremely hungry.’ (Primary teaching assistant, South West)

‘Children [don’t have] a water bottle because they don’t want to ask parents to buy one, children [are] worrying about the cost of trips.’ (Primary teacher, North West)

‘Worn clothing and footwear, learners complaining of being hungry and seeking more food during the day / seconds at lunch time, inability to concentrate, admitting they can’t get xyz [items for school] till home [their parents] receive their pay (living pay check to pay check).’ (Secondary Special Educational Needs School teacher, North East)

School staff diverted from core roles:

‘An inordinate amount of time is spent dealing with issues around poverty.’ (All-through senior school leader, London)

‘Staff are increasingly concerned and have been spending more time helping vulnerable families. This leads to members of staff having to leave their allocated roles to attend to pupils and also to contact statutory services to seek assistance and advice.’ (Primary teaching assistant, North West)

‘Staff [are] spending time sourcing equipment for homes eg, washing machine, carpets etc. Applying for hardship fund grants, food bank vouchers etc.’ (Primary admin and management, East Midlands)

‘As a school we will provide what families need, however, this is having an increasing impact on school resource and budgets which are already maximised.’ (Pupil Referral Unit head teacher, North East

‘Children [are] coming to school hungry not having [had] breakfast and we have to feed them which takes us away from our normal routine… also children coming to school in the wrong/too small clothes. [We’re] having to find clothes.’ (Primary teaching assistant, South East)

“Schools are becoming increasingly less about educating students and more about supporting families…” (Primary teaching assistant, East of England)

Learning compromised:

  • 84% of all school staff say the effects of poverty on pupils’ ability to learn and participate in school have worsened over the last two years.

‘I think our low-income children are falling further behind than ever before’ (Primary senior leader, South East)

‘Families are struggling financially and emotionally, and children are becoming more stressed and anxious. Pupils are not ready to learn.’(Primary teaching assistant, North West)

‘Lack of space having a negative impact on [student’s] ability to study/do homework. More students arriving to school without eating breakfast and parents unable to top up their dinner money through lack of funds/cost of living rise. This impacts on their ability to focus and concentrate meaning they will not meet their full potential.’ (Secondary, Pupil support and welfare, London)

‘Children can’t do homework online as they don’t have devices at home. Often they don’t even have pencils, coloured pencils or other resources to do homework at home.’ (Primary teaching assistant, Yorkshire and the Humber)

Child poverty is ripping through our schools, warping the way they work and jeopardising children’s learning and life chances. Staff want to focus on children’s development but get sidetracked by dinner money debt. They want the Government to act and get more help to families. As urgent first steps, Ministers must widen eligibility for free school meals, boost help with school-related costs and increase child benefit. That’s the minimum needed to give staff their time back and prevent millions of children from falling even further behind.   

‘[There is] absenteeism due to the costs of travel and also increased fatigue due to students undertaking more paid work to support themselves and their families.’ (Sixth Form specialist, London)

Commenting on the survey findings on behalf of the coalition, Head of Education Policy at Child Poverty Action Group Kate Anstey said:

CPAG’s short briefing on the survey results is here

The survey was completed by 1,023 people working in or with schools in England. Education Anti-Poverty Coalition member organisations shared the survey with their members.  The survey was also shared with schools across England and promoted on social media. Participants of the survey were self-selecting.

The Education Anti-Poverty Coalition, convened by Child Poverty Action Group, represents governors, head teachers, teachers, school support staff, PTAs and others working in education across England. All coalition members share a deep concern about the impact child poverty and hardship are having on the children we work with and our school system. We collectively call for action that will reduce child poverty. Signatory members of the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition are: The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), The Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY), Child Poverty Action Group, Children North East, The Children’s Society, National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), National Education Union (NEU), National Literacy Trust, Parentkind, UNISON and Newcastle University institute for Social Science.

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