Poverty: Just how much can schools do?

Written by: HTU | Published:

The Pupil Premium is on the up, but so is child poverty. With the number of children below the minimum income standards set to grow by 400,000, can schools really bridge the disadvantage gap on their own?

The value of the Pupil Premium is increasing. In an effort to provide schools with the resources to tackle disadvantage the government is promising even more money as an extra boost for those pupils on free school meals (FSM).

At the same time, we are told that the number of children in poverty is rising. Predictions around the impact of welfare cuts on families suggest that we are likely to see a rise rather than a fall in the number of disadvantaged pupils. While schools plug the gaps with the Pupil Premium so the number of gaps is growing.

For schools such as Jubilee Park Primary School in Tipton this is already having an impact. Headteacher Heidi Conner explained: “Parents in our area have been hit hard by the ‘Bedroom Tax’ on properties they have lived in for years where they now have to pay for spare rooms. They have found paying for trips, uniform and school dinners hard, leaving the school to pick up more of the tab than usual.”

Even where changes to the benefits system are encouraging searches for employment and training, this is not necessarily leading to a better standard of living for families.

“Many of our parents are now engaging in courses or even returning to work due to reforms,” Ms Conner continued. “Some are success stories, others are desperately struggling to make ends meet despite having an income.”

A recent survey by UNISON of 3,000 school support staff suggests that Ms Conner’s experiences are not unusual. Eighty-five per cent of respondents said that children were coming to their school hungry and 73 per cent believe that poverty has a negative impact on the education of the children in their school. 

The welfare changes 

Changes to the way in which families receive their benefits, and the amount they are entitled to, are happening at a rapid rate.

The new Universal Credit is being implemented as a method of encouraging those currently on benefits back into work. It combines six benefits into one and aims to simplify support for low-income families by providing a single payment whether you are in or out of work. 

The benefit cap is a limit on the amount in benefits households can receive if no-one is working. It will mean a maximum weekly benefit of £350 a week for a single person and £500 for couples or families with children. If a family is receiving more than the £500 limit, their housing benefit will be cut until it reaches the level of the cap. The level is fixed across the country. 

Citizens Advice has collected data suggesting that many people are unaware of what the implications will be for themselves, that they will struggle to budget, do not have the right bank account, and will not be able to manage their benefits online. 

The government’s child poverty strategy talks about “mobilising” people who are out-of-work and transforming lives so that only the most vulnerable should be reliant on welfare. However, this approach assumes that there is sufficient work available and also that those in work will not experience poverty. 

Improving attainment, aspiration and progression at all stages of education is a crucial component of the government’s strategy. The Pupil Premium is the magic medicine and schools the method by which it will be administered. However, will the ingredients be strong enough to counter the impact that welfare changes are likely to have? 

The impact on children 

 “Despite some progressive policies, families with children have lost more as a result of the economic policies modelled than those without children, and some of the most vulnerable groups have lost the most.”

This is one of many troubling statements to be found in the Children’s Commissioner’s report A Child Rights Impact Assessment of Budget Decisions.

The report predicts that the number of children living below a “minimum income standard” will rise by 400,000 to 6.8 million children (around 52 per cent of all children). It claims that the most vulnerable look likely to suffer most.

Overall, families with children in the poorest 10 per cent of the population are losing an average of £40 per week and those in the lowest 20 per cent and 30 per cent an average of £30. 

Action for Children in its document Playing with Children’s Lives quotes figures from the impact assessment on the benefit cap and suggests that 190,000 children will be affected. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is similarly pessimistic. They point out the difficulties that families with children have in reaching the Minimum Income Standard when the cost of childcare is so high.

More on the move 

As capping benefits kick in, so might the search for cheaper and cheaper accommodation. Playing with Children’s Lives points out that vulnerable families could be forced to leave areas where they have lived and have a support network in search of a more affordable home. Not only does this disrupt a child’s education and their sense of security but it could have safeguarding implications too.

As the benefit cap is the same across the country then some areas will find themselves attracting an even larger proportion of struggling families. A situation already affecting many coastal regions where the availability of houses of multiple occupation has drawn in the neediest, leading to an overload on services and a negative spiral of disadvantage. 

It is not just on the coast. Cities with low housing costs such as Bradford and Leicester could find themselves similarly inundated by new families. Action for Children warn us that some schools in inner London could be left without pupils while others have their workload increased: “We run the risk of putting added pressure on schools to potentially support vulnerable children with additional needs while putting unnecessary stress on the children themselves.”

Too much for schools 

Placing schools in the front line of addressing disadvantage and social mobility is nothing new. Ofsted’s report Unseen Children: Access and achievement 20 years on recognises that there have been steps forward. However, issues such as difficulties recruiting staff and high levels of pupil mobility remain and the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is proving hard to shift. 

The original report, Access and Achievement in Urban Education concluded by saying: “The rising tide of educational change is not lifting these boats. Beyond the school gate are underlying social issues such as poverty, unemployment, poor housing, inadequate health care and the frequent break-up of families. Education by itself can only do so much to enable individuals to reach beyond the limiting contours of their personal and social circumstances and succeed.” 

Creating greater opportunities for disadvantaged children is a commendable aim in itself and will help some find a better life. However, without a concerted attack on all fronts, it is hard to see how the Pupil Premium and the efforts of those schools receiving it can single-handedly wage war on child poverty. 


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

Further information 

  • A Child Rights Impact Assessment of Budget Decisions, June 2013, Office of the Children’s Commissioner: 
  • Does Universal Credit Enable Households to Reach a Minimum Income Standard?, July 2013, Joseph Rowntree Foundation: 
  • Tackling the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families’ Lives, April 2011, Department of Work and Pensions and DfE: 
  • Unseen Children: Access and achievement 20 years on, June 2013, Ofsted: 
  • Access and Achievement in Urban Education, 1993, Ofsted: http://bit.ly/1dC2UTW
  • Playing With Children’s Lives, July 2013, Action for Children: http://bit.ly/19e17PW



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