‘There’s only so much we can do’: School staff are calling for action to tackle child poverty

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By Georgina Burt, Senior Education Policy Officer at Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG)

In a unique piece of collaborative research, for the first time the whole school workforce (including headteachers, senior leaders, teachers, governors, support staff, admin staff, school business managers, catering teams and facilities managers) were asked about the effect poverty has on their school and the pupils and families that they work with.

In total, more than 1,000 professionals working in schools across England shared their views via an online survey. This research was led by the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition and was carried out over the course of the summer term at the end of the 2022/23 academic year.

The results show that our school system is being thwarted by high levels of child poverty, with staff stretched and children’s learning and life chances being impacted.

The findings show the increasingly challenging context our schools are facing. Responses demonstrate that school staff are seeing child poverty levels in their schools increasing with more and more families struggling financially. School staff also reported that there are less support services available and that they have less capacity to help families, with staffing cuts being cited as one reason for this. As a result of this complex picture, school staff overwhelmingly believe that the learning of children in low-income households is being impacted:

  • 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.

It is against this backdrop that school staff are increasingly being diverted from their roles to deal with issues caused by poverty. Key findings include:

  • 79% of school staff in England say time must be diverted from allocated roles to combat child poverty
  • 68% of school staff say more pupils don’t have money for enough food at lunchtime
  • 70% of head teachers say more parents asking for help with essentials like food and clothing
  • 82% of school staff say government should do more for struggling families.

School staff across a variety of roles listed the ways in which they and their colleagues are being required to support families and pupils. From following up on dinner money debt, making referrals to specialist services, sourcing food bank vouchers and children’s clothes, applying for hardship grants, and even sourcing home equipment like washing machines – all of these tasks are pulling staff in our schools away from their designated responsibilities, leaving them with less time and capacity for other traditional parts of their roles.

Child Poverty Action Group established the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition to bring together organisations working across the education sector who share a deep concern about the impact that high levels of child poverty are having on our education system. Members of the coalition include organisations that represent school leaders, governors, teachers, support staff and parents. The coalition provides a unified and united voice, with all members in agreement that our pupils, families, staff and the school system as a whole is being hindered by the consequences of child poverty.

The findings of this survey demonstrate unequivocally that our schools cannot do it all and should not be expected to. Education professionals are going above and beyond to support families facing financial hardship, but this is taking a toll on our education system. School staff want to see families supported with school costs, free school meals extended and families with children offered more direct financial support.

Eradicating child poverty would unlock the potential held within our school system, allow our school staff to get back to their core roles, and all of our young people to flourish.

The full report can be accessed here.

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i3oz9s‘There’s only so much we can do’: School staff are calling for action to tackle child poverty