At crisis point: Poverty in our communities

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The cost-of-living crisis has not left many untouched and those working in schools are experiencing first-hand the impact it is having on families. Suzanne O'Connell speaks with three schools to find out what they are seeing and what they are doing to help

Official data indicates that 3.9 million children live in poverty in the UK – around nine in an average classroom (DWP, 2022). And this figure is expected to worsen after the axing of the Universal Credit uplift introduced during Covid.

A majority of these families are in work and with food inflation soaring one in four households with children experienced some kind of food insecurity last term (Food Foundation, 2022).

You will all have seen heart-breaking individual stories. Hannah coming in to school hungry. Thomas who does not have proper winter clothing. Abdul whose family does not qualify for free school meals but yet cannot afford lunches. Examples we are shocked to see in 2023.

We know that pupils living in hardship in families in crisis and with insufficient, heating, food, space, and comfort in the home cannot be separated from the job of education – some basic needs simply have to be addressed before pupils can learn.

Research into the state of poverty in our schools is not hard to find. A National Education Union study involving 8,600 teachers found that the impact of poverty is getting worse for many schools and is leading to problems including fatigue (78%), poor concentration (75%), hunger (57%), and ill-health (50%).

A report from the Sutton Trust (2022) involved 6,200 teachers and leaders in England who reported increases in the numbers of pupils facing serious issues linked to the cost of living, including increased numbers of pupils unable to concentrate/tired (74%), coming to school without adequate winter clothing (54%), and arriving hungry (38%).

Almost one in five said there had been an increase in families asking for food bank referrals, while half of senior leaders said that the number of children ineligible for free school meals and yet unable to afford lunch increased during the autumn term.

We could go on, but you all know the picture, and we all know the impact.

In terms of education, at the end of primary school, pupils living in poverty are on average more than nine months behind their peers in reading, writing and maths (Hutchinson et al, 2020). But ultimately, it’s the heartbreaking stories of families at breaking point that drive us to find ways to prop up the welfare state.

‘Just about managing’

Anthony David, executive headteacher at St Paul’s and Monken Hadley CE Primary Schools in north London, says he has seen a “rapid increase” in families qualifying for Pupil Premium: “This has doubled between 2020 and 2022. Equally evident has been the increase in families who are just about managing.”

These “just about managing” families are also a concern for Emma Barker, principal of Pawlett, West Huntspill and East Huntspill Primary Schools in Somerset: “These families are struggling financially but not so bad that they qualify for Pupil Premium. They are on the edge.”

And of course there are those families who weren’t managing before Covid. Emma Meadus, head at Coppice Valley Primary School in Harrogate, reminds us: “Those that have always found it hard to make ends meet are in dire circumstances now.”

In some cases the evidence is stark: pupils are clearly hungry, or exhausted or we can see that the uniform has seen better days. However, there are also less obvious indications, such as the falling off of parental contributions towards trips.

There is a dilemma here for schools. We are told that pupil welfare is not solely our responsibility, but what do you do when faced with the impact of poverty on day-to-day school life?

Food and clothing

Once upon a time, breakfast clubs were a “nice to have” for schools – now they have become an essential part of Pupil Premium provision.

Ms Barker’s schools were already offering breakfast and the club is fully funded by the Pupil Premium: “We encourage all our Pupil Premium children to attend and ensure that they have a good breakfast, access to reading (both being read to and someone listening to them), as well as being physically active – so they are ready to start the day.”

School uniform is another factor: “We make sure that our uniform can be bought at supermarkets and children do not have to have a branded jumper, book bag etc,” Ms Barker added.

Coppice Valley is working with a food bank and charities to make food parcels and is collaborating with a clothes bank. They are in the process of remodelling a mobile building to provide a warm space and community hub. Ms Meadus added: “The local community can get warm, have a drink, take from a small grocery and clothes bank (including school uniform), and get support from our family worker.”

Avoiding the stigma

Some families are reluctant to accept help: “There is a great deal of stigma around this, so we are mindful of that,” said Ms Barker. “We had a cupboard in the playground where families can access supplies if they need them, however this wasn’t being used. Now we donate it all to the food bank so people know to go there.”

Poverty can affect friendships and lead to bullying. There is stigma attached to being entitled to FSMs and some families are reluctant to ask for help. Children may not be able to join in with their peers in different social activities and may be singled out due to differences in clothing and school equipment.

At Coppice Valley, families have been emailed and told they can let the school know if they need help: “We got an immediate response from families we would have expected and from some we have not had to support before.

“We have seen more working, single-parent families asking for help.”

Stressed families

Where families are struggling financially there can be other repercussions. Mr David has seen a “notable uptick” in the number of parental abuse or anger incidents.

He explained: “Often they are parent against parent and they are outside of school. They range from road rage to online harassment. We are fully expecting an increase in safeguarding cases.

“Families have endured so much over two years of Covid and are now finding themselves financially threatened. This represents long-term social anxiety which is likely to translate into an increase in abuse.”

Cultural capital

Enrichment activities can be more difficult for schools to provide when funding is tight. Schools are trying to work out how they might maintain their trips and visits schedule with so many families now unable to contribute.

Ms Barker said: “We have had two years of not being able to take children out and about due to Covid restrictions and they have missed these experiences.

“A recent trip to the theatre was financially supplemented by our PTFA to make it affordable for all children. It will be a similar approach to the year 6 residential.

“We have given parents options to choose from and we will offer to match-fund what families can contribute.”

Doing what we can

Ms Meadus was expecting the increase in poverty and had already decided to tackle it head-on: “We put in motion a campaign in the summer term that we called ‘The Year of Giving Back’.

“I approached local businesses and national charities for financial support so the school can ‘give back’ to the families who have supported us over the years.”

Signposting families to the help they need is vital for Ms Barker too: “For the new year the local Citizens Advice Bureau is joining me in my regular ‘coffee with the head’ session so families will have direct access to advice in a familiar environment.”

Ms Barker is concerned that things are only going to get worse: “We are trying to future-proof initiatives as much as we can. We are having to think again about how to ensure experiences can be had without too much additional cost for families.” 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition will also be available soon via

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