The UK is one of the world’s richest economies yet in 2016/2017, 4.1 million children were living in poverty in the UK, an increase of 100,000 on the previous year. This means 30% of children, or nine pupils in every classroom of 30 pupils, are officially poor.
Moreover work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty: 67% of the 4.1 million children in poverty have at least one parent in work.
Regional child poverty figures released by the End Child Poverty coalition in January 2018 show that there are now constituencies where more than half of children are growing up in poverty. The figures also show that some of the most deprived areas of the UK have seen the biggest increases in child poverty - of up to 10 percentage points in some cases - since the last local child poverty figures were released in December 2015.
Levels of poverty are also projected to rise in the next five years, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predicting that, “if planned benefit cuts go ahead and earnings grow as the OBR forecasts, inequality will start to rise”.
The IFS also predicts that “low-income households with children will fare worse than other households”.
Poverty has a significant impact on the educational experience and attainment of many children growing up in the UK. Moreover, research indicates there is a stronger relationship between parental social background and children’s test scores in England than in many other rich countries.
Teachers are committed to the principle that education can make an enormous difference to children’s lives, but schools and teachers 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.
The academic literature is very clear: differences in the social background of pupils are the primary factors causing inequality in educational outcomes.
According to research published by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in February 2018, schools were found to account for just 9% of pupil-level variation in Progress 8 in 2015-16, once the effect of the clustering of similar groups of pupils in schools was accounted for.
These findings are broadly consistent with earlier research, including a 2003 study by the then Department for Education and Skills, which found that, when a “progress” indicator was considered, only 8-13% of the variation at the end of secondary schooling attainment was explained by the school.
NEU members are acutely aware of the impact of poverty on the children they work with. A joint NEU and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) survey of almost 1,000 one thousand union members carried out in March 2018 unearthed shocking findings. Some 87% of respondents thought poverty or living on a low income affects the learning of their pupils/students significantly; while 60% of respondents thought that the extent of poverty in their schools and its effect on low income pupils/students had got worse since 2015. Of these, a third (33%) thought it has worsened significantly.
NEU and CPAG’s survey revealed that 83% of respondents see children showing signs of hunger during the school day. Hunger not only has a negative impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of children, it also impairs learning by reducing children’s ability to concentrate.
School holiday hunger is a particular problem. While many disadvantaged children are entitled to receive free school meals during term time, hunger among children during school holidays is now commonplace. More than half (59%) of NEU members polled for a snapshot survey conducted in July 2018 said that children in their school experienced holiday hunger. Of these, 51% said that in the last three years the situation in their school had got worse.
Poverty impacts students’ experience of education in other ways. The Children's Commission on Poverty found that a third of children who said their family is “not well off at all” had fallen behind in class because their family could not afford the necessary books or materials. Two in five children in these families said they had missed a term-time school trip because of the cost.
Increasing levels of poverty are putting schools under greater pressure. Schools serving deprived communities are dealing with extra challenges including child mental and physical health issues, the impact of unemployment, and higher crime rates.
At the same time England's schools are experiencing real-term budget cuts which are set to be compounded by the introduction of the proposed new National Funding Formula for schools.
Research by the NEU and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) using DfE data shows that, under current Government school funding policy, the 1,000 schools with the highest number of children receiving free school meals are facing much higher cuts in funding per pupil than schools generally.
Budget cuts have also reduced funding available to local authorities to sustain and develop vital child and family services which relieve the burden on schools, enabling them to focus on teaching and learning. Similarly, as research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown, Government cuts to local authorities are disproportionately affecting the poorest places and the poorest groups.
The Government says that raising the achievement of disadvantaged pupils and reducing the attainment gap is a priority. However, rather than directing its efforts towards effectively reducing child poverty and mitigating its effects, this Government has instead frequently sought to scapegoat schools and teachers for the “underachievement” of poor pupils.
International comparison of school systems shows that those jurisdictions that emphasise choice and competition demonstrate higher levels of segregation and that this can lead to less equity in learning opportunities and outcomes. In light of this, the Government should re-think its focus on promoting school choice and competition. Instead it should concentrate on improving teaching and learning across all schools, and on fully funding education and children and young people’s services.