The cost of living crisis: Responding in schools with three Cs

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
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The cost of living crisis is pushing families to the brink and the impact of disadvantage on children’s lives and their education is far-reaching. Sean Harris explains how schools can respond using three Cs...

The cost of living crisis is affecting all of our school communities. In 2022, our families experienced rising food costs, record levels of inflation, and a surge in their energy prices that has still not abated. And things will not get easier this year with food inflation alone expected to hit 17̂% (Nabarro, 2022).

Schools are seeing more families in need – and this goes beyond the labels of Pupil Premium or free school meals. An analysis published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Stone et al, 2022), calculated that a single person needs to earn £25,500 a year to reach a minimum acceptable standard of living in 2022/23. Couples with children need to earn £43,400.

The report states: “Millions of people in the UK risk falling well short of this standard as costs continue to rise and our social security system fails to provide adequate and appropriate support.”

We know that this is a shared reality for many of the families and children that we serve in our schools. And the ripples of the cost of living crisis go beyond the children and families we serve. They are hitting colleagues too.

For example, recruitment and retention issues are challenging and even more so for schools serving in areas of deprivation (Headteacher Update, 2022a). School support staff are regularly accessing food banks and support services as a means of navigating the crisis (Hall & Webster, 2022).

Teachers are feeling the strain too, with a survey of 6,500 teachers revealing that 97% are worried about their finances (Roach, 2022).

Focusing on the children

But in this article, I will focus on vulnerable students. There is an impact on learning to be considered. Teachers have reported an increase in the number of students facing challenges to learning as a result of the impact of the crisis.

According to the Sutton Trust, 74% of teachers have seen an increase in students unable to concentrate or who are tired in class, 54% have seen an increase in those coming in without adequate clothing for cold weather, 38% have seen children coming in hungry (for an overview of this research, see Headteacher Update, 2022b).

So what can we do? I would urge a focus on three Cs:

Vulnerable Learners Supplement

This article is an adapted version of one that first appeared in our sister magazine SecEd’s March 2023 vulnerable learners supplement. The free 18-page download focuses on boosting attendance for vulnerable students as well as tackling the impact of poverty and other issues. It includes practical advice from colleagues working in our schools as well as three case studies of how schools are supporting their students. Published in March 2023, you can download the supplement in pdf format here.

1, Classrooms

We are deep enough into the crisis to challenge the myth that quality first teaching is sufficient to eradicate educational disadvantage in our classrooms. However, we must ensure that our classroom craft is robust enough and well-informed to facilitate effective learning for our most disadvantaged students.

There are growing sources of evidence that demonstrate explicit links between poverty and its impact on the cognitive and neurological functions of children (see Harris, 2022a). Only last year, a Harvard University study (Weissman et al, 2022) suggested that public policies aimed at mitigating the harms of poverty may lead to improved brain development in disadvantaged children and young people.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but to what extent are we considering the following when crafting curriculum, planning and delivering lessons, and reviewing learning in classrooms?

Curriculum content is more likely to stick and be understood when it is broken down into granular detail and bite-size chunks (see the work of Professor Dylan Wiliam as well as Mary Myatt’s 2018 book The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence).

  • Curriculum leadership and planning is more effective when subject leaders review, discuss and refine their curriculum across topics and subjects. In this sense, curriculum should never be seen as “done” (Turner, 2016).
  • Regular low-stakes retrieval is important to ensure all children are in the habit of remembering, retrieving, and applying their learned knowledge (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). If students haven’t got it, we should not be continuing to rush through new content or just complete coverage of the exam specification because it makes us feel better.
  • Managing cognitive load is arguably more complex and essential for some of our students now. The brain can only manage a set amount of tasks at a given time (Wood et al, 2011). It is essential we consider this when introducing and facilitating learning. A turbulent environment, a busy classroom, or an “overly creative” lesson resource is likely to add to the cognitive load of our students and detract from the learning we want to take place.
  • Feedback is important in classrooms, but its role as a driver to supporting disadvantaged students is often misunderstood. Now is an important time to sense-check the validity of our marking policies. Do they allow us to give bespoke and insightful feedback to those students who really need it and who, for valid reasons, are struggling to engage with learning? (For more on effective feedback and monitoring, see SecEd, 2022.)

2, Culture

While labels of Pupil Premium and free school meals are convenient proxies for schools, they do not accurately indicate the levels of disadvantage in school communities (Gorard, 2022; Holloway et al, 2014). It is therefore important that our school culture is codified by a responsiveness to the families and children we are serving.

As an example, I recently carried out research (surveys and interviews) with our families regarding marketing and communications that we send out from the multi-academy trust.

As part of the interviews, families talked about how the cost of living crisis is affecting the time they have to engage with communications from school. Some families added that cashless systems, while well-intentioned, were now having a negative impact.

This is because more families are choosing to go cash-only as this helps with budgeting.

The lesson is that our children in poverty might be encountering barriers in the places we’d least expect them. So as a system leader, I am challenged by the fact that our responsiveness needs to go further than just practical offers of help, as important as they may be. Ideas might include:

  • A regular parent/stakeholder forum with a specific agenda of the cost of living in mind. Families are able to share (openly or confidentially) matters arising, challenges, and intelligence from their own experience of the cost of living.
  • Dedicate time in CPD, leadership and/or departmental meetings to considering the persistent problems being caused by the cost of living crisis. I offered practical tools for use by teams in my recent Headteacher Update article (Harris, 2022b).
  • Engage with external experts to further review your approach to understanding poverty in relation to the school day. Examples include Children North East’s Poverty Proofing the School Day initiative (see further information).
  • Ensure school business managers and operational administrative support is tasked with a responsiveness to the cost of living crisis. For example, ensure that families eligible for free school meals are contacted and supported in applying and include signposts to support locally or regionally for families on websites and in newsletters.

3, Children

At the root of our responsiveness needs to be children. It is easy to become complacent when we see the harrowing statistics of poverty and need in the UK right now. We must remember that behind that attendance graph with a declining line or a set of negative behaviour data may well be a child or family in crisis. Children have the most important of voices.

I visited the Kemnal Academies Trust in the South East recently to learn about how their schools are using mentors to support disadvantaged students with their studies, but also to ensure a forensic level of responsiveness to the needs of children and families.

Students taking part in the ACE (A Champion for Every Child) programme meet individually with their tutor weekly. Tutors get the children ready to learn, close learning gaps, and improve their outcomes and life chances. Headteacher Update has written about this work (Headteacher Update, 2022c).

Effective “student voice” in schools can further contribute to children having a greater sense of belonging, increased student participation, and improved relationships between children and adults in the learning community. Examples might include:

  • A research task group consisting of students who share with support staff/colleagues how the cost of living is affecting them, friends, and families. Needless to say, questions would have to be carefully and sensitively facilitated. In our experience, children are very willing to have these discussions and are comfortable talking about these issues with trusted adults.
  • Using student voice (surveys, drop-boxes, comments cards) to invite students to share concerns or anxieties.
  • Ensuring that assemblies, extra-curricular activities and events give opportunity for students to learn more about poverty and how the cost of living crisis is affecting others. This will reassure students that they are not alone and that school staff are wanting to understand more.

Partnering with organisations to support students in raising awareness of poverty and the impact that cost of living is having is another way we can act. For example, Bite Back 2030 is a charity which works with schools to promote healthy eating. Behind the charity is a youth board filled with teenage activists and their work includes campaigns for the expansion of free school meals to children who are not eligible but still living in poverty.

  • Sean Harris is a doctoral researcher with Teesside University investigating the ways in which system leaders can help to address the problems of poverty and educational inequality in schools. He is also a trust improvement leader at Tees Valley Education, an all-through multi-academy trust serving communities in the North East of England. You can follow on Twitter @SeanHarris_NE and read his previous best practice articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & references

  • Bite Back 2030:
  • Children North East: Poverty Proofing the School Day:
  • Gorard: What is the evidence on the impact of Pupil Premium funding on school intakes and attainment by age 16 in England? British Educational Research Journal, 2022:
  • Hall & Webster: From Covid to the cost of living: The crises remaking the role of teaching assistants, Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit, University of Portsmouth, 2022:
  • Harris: Poverty on the brain: Five strategies to counter the impacts of disadvantage in the classroom, Headteacher Update, 2022a. Read this here.
  • Harris: School leadership: How to respond to and solve problems, Headteacher Update, 2022b. Read this here.
  • Headteacher Update: Recruitment and retention: The most deprived schools hit hardest, 2022a: Read this here.
  • Headteacher Update: Cost of living crisis: Increasing numbers of non-FSM pupils cannot afford school lunches, 2022b: Read this here.
  • Headteacher Update: Pupil Premium tutoring: A Champion for Every Child, 2022c: Read this here.
  • Holloway et al: At what cost? Exposing the impact of poverty on school life, Children’s Commission on Poverty, The Children’s Society, 2014:
  • Nabarro: UK outlook: Why we need to do things differently, IFS, 2022:
  • Roach: Teachers’ pay: Time is up, time for action, Headteacher Update, 2022. Read this here.
  • Roediger & Karpicke: Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention, Psychological Science (17,3), 2006:
  • SecEd: Getting feedback right in your classroom, 2022:
  • Stone et al: A minimum income standard for the UK, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2022:
  • Turner: Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design, Bloomsbury, 2016.
  • Weissman et al: Antipoverty programs mitigate socioeconomic disparities in hippocampal volume and internalizing problems among US youths, Harvard University, 2022:
  • Wood et al: Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning, Computers & Education (58), 2011:

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