The UK is one of the world’s richest economies but 4.3 million children and young people are growing up trapped in poverty. This means 30% of children, or nine pupils in every classroom of 30 pupils, are officially poor.

It hasn’t always been this way. Between 1998 and 2003 reducing child poverty was a national priority – a comprehensive Government strategy and substantive investment in children saw the number of children trapped in poverty fall by 600,000 in only a few years. However, concerningly, in 2016 child poverty targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and the Government’s duty to meet the targets, were scrapped. Subsequent changes to welfare policy and cuts to support services have pushed thousands more families below the breadline.

Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK; the rapidly expanding gig economy, insecure employment, rising living costs and the growing cost of childcare is placing added pressure on working families struggling to keep afloat. Most children and young people growing up in poverty – 75% of the 4.3 million – live in a household were at least one person works.

Currently, child poverty is on the rise. A recent NEU member survey found that over half of respondents have seen an increase in child poverty at their school or college since March 2020, the start of the first national lockdown. The latest research from the Resolution Foundation predicts that by the next General Election, 730,000 more children and young people will be caught in poverty’s grip.

Poverty exacerbates inequality

Poverty has a lasting, damaging impact on the future life chances of children and intensifies systemic inequalities:

  • Poverty disproportionately impacts children and young people growing up in Black or ethnic minority families – 46% of whom are trapped in poverty.
  • 49% of children in lone-parent families are trapped in the grip of poverty, with many single parents working several jobs to make ends meet. Gender inequality in pay and childcare costs compound the challenges many lone-parent families face.
  • After years of decline, the poverty rate for families with disabled family members has been increasing since 2011/12.
  • Research shows that 1 in 10 girls cannot afford menstrual products, and over 137,700 children missed school because of period poverty in 2018.

Poverty creates barriers which prevent children from accessing education

Poverty has a significant impact on the educational experience and attainment of many children growing up in the UK:

  • Over three-quarters of respondents to an NEU survey told us their students had demonstrated fatigue (78%) or poor concentration (75%) in school as a result of poverty.
  • More than half of members said their students had experienced hunger (57%) or ill health (50%) as a result of poverty.
  • More than a third (35%) said their students had been bulled because of poverty.
  • Children accessing Free School Meals are 28% less likely to leave school with 5 A*-C GCSE grades than their wealthier peers.
  • The coronavirus pandemic has increased the pressure families on low incomes are facing. Virtually all respondents to a recent NEU member survey reported teaching students with limited or no access to learning resources at home during the months of the pandemic.
  • Four in five members reported families turning to schools or colleges for extra support during lockdown for the provision of basic learning resources such as pens, paper and books.
  • A fifth of UK schools have set up a local food bank since March 2020, with 25% of teachers reporting they personally provide food and snacks to their pupils to ensure they have eaten during the school day.
  • Poverty harms children's physical health and mental well-being and this undermines their ability to learn, in lots of different ways.

Poverty is holding too many children and young people back, limiting their life chances and creating barriers around their access to education.

The NEU’s Turning the Page on Poverty resource offers a practical guide for members to identify key drivers of poverty and understand how this impacts on a child’s experience in school, as well as supporting their individual practice in tackling the barriers poverty can create in the classroom.

However, schools and education staff alone cannot address society-wide inequity and the effects of poverty on educational achievement. It is the responsibility of Government to create the conditions in which all children can thrive and learn.

Join the NEU’s No Child Left Behind campaign to add your voice to the fight against child poverty

NEU Podcast - Child Poverty - Dec. 2020

In our first episode, we discuss the impact of child poverty and how the pandemic has worsened the situation in schools.

We hear from NEU members Merium, Lucy and Chris who describe their experience of dealing with child poverty in the classroom and what they think needs to change to support children and young people to access education.