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The hidden effects of the cost of living: Removing barriers for children living in poverty

The costs of the school day are a worry for families beyond those with the lowest incomes -- and are affecting school attendance.

17/03/23

The hidden effects of the cost of living: Removing barriers for children living in poverty

At the recent Coram/Newcastle University conference ‘Building Fairer Futures for Children and Young People,’ Karen Laing, Senior Research Associate at Newcastle University said, ‘It’s not just the low-income families that are struggling. It’s not just the typical costs -- the school meals, the uniform. It’s the cumulative costs. Like World Book Day; that costs money, it costs time and it costs resource. Then there’s events, trips, learning materials, ingredients for food tech classes; laptops and mobiles are increasingly used in classrooms. And Red Nose Day, dress-up days, dress-down days, fundraisers, school photographs -- we know that [because of the cost], some children do not attend on World Book Day or Red Nose Day...It is particularly serious for parents with disabled children.’

She described the impact of Poverty Proofing, an initiative developed by the charity Children North East and evaluated by the university. The aim is to help schools remove barriers for students living in poverty, to support inclusive access to the arts and heritage, and to minimise the impact of poverty in healthcare.

Using surveys and interviews facilitators identify practices that stigmatise children. The facilitator talks to staff, parents and, crucially, every child in the school. ‘The child’s voice is central.’

Staff and parents have different perceptions: ‘98 per cent of staff in our survey said “we know parents would approach us if they were struggling financially” but only 42 per cent of parents said they would consider doing so.

‘Eighty per cent of teachers felt poverty had an impact on their children’s attainment. It also has an effect on their participation in extra-curricular learning, an important part of the experiences our children need to thrive and develop.

‘A survey we did with parents indicates the kind of costs. There’s a slight difference between primary and secondary. Secondary means a lot more spent on digital resources – laptops , stationery for homework for example, but it is the sheer range of these extra costs -- education is supposed to be free but parents are struggling. …It is about the cost of the school day and not just for those on the very lowest income or out of work. A parent in work said: “we are paying £5 each child so £10 a day, £50 a week £200 pound a month just for school meals. And if you only have three or five quid in your bank account and the minimum you can put on their [meal] account card is £12 quid, for two children that is £24 -- that is quite a struggle. You can’t top your child’s dinner money up and those children will go hungry that day.”

‘This [from a parent] really gets across the stigma that is still there: “Free school meal children are treated differently. She is told she can’t buy certain foods because they take her over the free school meal allowance. It’s like wearing a badge saying ‘I’m poor’. It’s heart-breaking to watch her come home hungry because she’d rather not go in the lunch hall and I get that. I put money on her lunch card and the dinner lady questioned her about that in the lunch queue in front of her friend because she was a free school meal child and she’s not supposed to have money put on her lunch card.”’

The team produces a report and makes practical suggestions. ‘Often we are not talking about dramatic changes that cost lots of money. We are talking about small changes they can make easily -- a conversation with that dinner lady for example.’

A facilitator works with the school, to write and help to implement an action plan based on the report, and share learning.

One change was to giving parents more notice – ‘if you have St David’s Day, World Book Day and school photographs all coming in the same week, why don’t you let parents know several months in advance, so they can prepare for that?’ … and on Red Nose Day, why don’t we set up a portal and whoever wants to donate can donate on the portal? That way a child isn’t going into school without their pound when everyone else in the class has the pound in their hand.

‘There were new ideas for Christmas; when we ask children to dress in a certain way for a play, we’re asking now if we can keep those outfits and eventually, they ‘ll build up a set of outfits so they don’t need to ask children to being their own…And change non-uniform day to pyjamas. Years 5 and 6 told us, “everybody’s got a pair of pyjamas.” ’

She said that a written briefing for schools does not bring change. ‘What does produce the transformation is the voices of the children and the families in that school.

‘It really comes across in this, from a teacher, “it pulled at my heartstrings – I was sat listening and one of the boys in year six -- it was just before the Halloween disco -- said his mam had to go and buy three tickets and three outfits, and it’s a lot of money. As soon as I heard it I thought straightaway this is something we need to look at as we have sets of three and four siblings in the school. So I am going to introduce a family ticket -- if you pay for one you pay for them all.”

‘Scotland has adopted this as a national policy priority. Our North Tyne poverty strategy is using it as one of its interventions and Wales is using in curriculum development. We have a long way to go before all of our schools and all of our organisations are poverty proofed but it is a huge opportunity.’

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