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Development and Discussion 2019 5: Child Poverty in Schools

This month's Discussion and Development Blog is written by Sophie Howes from Child Poverty Action Group and it looks at the struggles that children in poverty face, and how we can help. 


Tackling Child Poverty in Schools: a role for school librarians?

Sophie Howes, Child Poverty Action Group


Child poverty in the UK

Child poverty in the UK is rising. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that child poverty will rise from the current level of 4.1 million to 5.2 million by 2020/21.[1] This is largely due to cuts in the social security system that many children and families rely on. At the same time, other public services have seen significant cutbacks, which can leave families struggling on low incomes with little support.

Increasing child poverty is worrying for schools, because poverty at home is the strongest statistical predictor of how well a child will achieve at school.[2] On average poorer children have worse cognitive, socio-behavioural, physical, and mental health than their better-off peers.[3] They are less likely to do well at school; in 2015 only 33% of students eligible for free school meals got five ‘good’ passes at GCSE (A*-C) compared with 61% of those not eligible.[4] Poorer children are more likely to be persistently absent and four times more likely to be permanently excluded from school, with obvious impacts for their education.[5] Evidence suggests that these impacts are both a result of direct deprivation (e.g. inadequate housing leading to poor sleep or lack of space to do homework, difficulties providing healthy food, less ability to afford computers and extracurricular activities) and the impact of coping with poverty on parents’ mental health.

Whilst this paints a depressing picture, schools don’t have to wait for direction from central government to take action on child poverty. On a local level, there is much that can be done by schools and other key public services to tackle child poverty. Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has been involved in a number of research and practice projects that focus on working with schools to prevent and mitigate the impact of child poverty on children’s education.


Tackling child poverty in schools

In 2018, CPAG was commissioned by the Greater London Authority to conduct a small-scale research project looking at the role of London schools in tackling child poverty. In partnership with a small number of primary schools CPAG reviewed and tested different activities in schools that were designed to support children and families from low income households.

Activities in schools were varied, for example welfare rights advice for parents in schools to help maximise family income, support for families with no recourse to public funds, and information sessions for parents about financial help with childcare. In addition, many of the schools we worked with had an established ‘extended schools’ programme, including breakfast and after school club. These can be particularly beneficial for children and families on a low income by allowing parents to work outside limited school hours and raise family incomes, boosting the attainment of disadvantaged children through activities, and providing children with healthy food.

There is some key learning for schools from this project. Some of the lessons for schools include the importance of asking children, parents and the wider school community about the support families on a low income might need rather than making assumptions, and the value of a ‘targeted universal’ approach with activities open to all children with extra steps taken to engage disadvantaged children, rather than specific programmes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds which in practice are stigmatising.

Schools were clear that this work isn’t without challenges: funding, establishing good leadership, and engaging the families who would benefit most were all identified as potential hurdles. However, for those schools who had established programmes of support for families living in poverty the benefits were obvious to all, as one teacher put it:

There is a recognition that it is very difficult to teach children in the classroom if their lives are very difficult outside of the classroom. We have a duty to support families with these issues.

Cost of the School Day

In Scotland, CPAG is supporting schools and local authorities to understand and tackle the barriers that school costs can create for children from low income households. School costs, such as uniform, equipment, and costs for school activities and trips can place barriers in the way of children’s participation and learning. They can lead to income-related exclusion and stigma amongst children and young people, place pressure on low family budgets and further reduce stretched family incomes.

The Cost of the School Day project works directly with school communities and also provides training, support and advice to practitioners and local authorities looking to mitigate the effects of child poverty in schools. CPAG has created the Cost of the School Day Toolkit, an online resource for schools to help them work with children and young people, families and staff to consider the costs of the school day. There are a number of actions schools can take to reduce costs and level the playing field for children and young people from low-income households, many of which directly engage the work of school librarians.

A role for school librarians?

Children and young people involved in our Cost of the School Day project in Scotland identified a number of ways that school libraries can provide support to children and families on low incomes:


  • ICT was identified as a particular issue that can cause barriers for children who may not have access to internet at home to help with home learning. Being able to access ICT facilities over lunchtime and after school in libraries was seen as a way to help with this.

  • Longer library opening hours in secondary schools was suggested as another way libraries can support students to complete homework and other academic tasks.

  • Providing homework clubs, supported study and drop in sessions can help students who might need some additional help with study tasks.

  • Lending resources and equipment and doing this in a way that is stigma-free (open access and there for everyone rather than being visibly given to certain students) can help ensure students are able to participate in extra-curricular activities like sports and games clubs.

These are small steps, but our Cost of the School Day Project, and our research with London schools has shown that collectively they can make a huge difference to a child’s experience of education. For more information about these projects and to access the Cost of the School Day toolkit go to www.cpag.org.uk


[1] Hood A, and Waters, T. Living Standards, Poverty, and Inequality in the UK 2017-18 to 2021-22, Institute for Fiscal Studies, November 2017

[2] Exley, S. Inside and Outside the School Gates: impacts of poverty on children’s education, in Improving Children’s Life Chances, Child Poverty Action Group, 2016

[3] Cooper, K. and Stewart, K. Does money affect children’s outcomes? An update, July 2017

[4] Cooper, K. and Stewart, K. Does money affect children’s outcomes? An update, July 2017

[5] Cooper, K. and Stewart, K. Does money affect children’s outcomes? An update, July 2017

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