'I will never forget the panic in that girl's voice’ – the poverty crisis laid bare

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The chilling and worsening impact of poverty on children and families has been laid bare by a survey of 10,000 teachers. The research also sets out teachers’ priorities post-Covid. Pete Henshaw reports

“In 20 years teaching, I have never seen the situation so bad.”

Teachers say that levels of child poverty are worsening, with a majority reporting that at least one-fifth of the pupils they teach are economically disadvantaged.

Before the pandemic, child poverty levels were already rising with 4.2 million children living below the poverty line in March 2020 (72 per cent of whom were living in working families). Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation with many families having lost work.

This week, the National Education Union (NEU) published findings of its State of Education survey involving more than 10,000 of its members ahead of its annual conference, which is running from April 7 to 9.

It revealed stories of schools that have provided basic furniture to families, as well as uniforms, laptops and breakfasts. One school reports having a “stock of spare clothes” to give to families.

The survey asked respondents how many of the pupils they teach are economically disadvantaged, with 52 per cent of respondents reporting this figure to be more than 20 per cent.

What proportion of your pupils/students do you consider to be economically disadvantaged (e.g. eligible for FSM/EMA, or where poverty has a clear impact on their ability to reach their potential) (Source: NEU)

  • None: Four per cent
  • Up to 20%: 31 per cent
  • 21% to 40%: 25 per cent
  • 41% to 60%: 15 per cent
  • 61% to 80%: Nine per cent
  • 81% to 100%: Three per cent
  • Don't Know: 12 per cent

This echoes previous research findings from the NEU in January suggesting that 55 per cent of teachers have seen an increase in child poverty at their school since the pandemic began.

Furthermore, last month research from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Children North East revealed some of the “impossible choices” that have faced families in poverty this year, with a third not having the learning equipment they needed during lockdown.

The recent lockdown has heightened families’ fears about money too, with 90 per cent having spent more on bills since January according to the CPAG research. School-related costs have soared too, with many families saying they spent more on the back to school effort in September, including on uniforms, clothing for outdoor learning, masks, hand gel and so on.

Meanwhile, teachers responding to the NEU’s research gave a chilling insight into the current situation:

  • “I called home during the first lockdown and spoke to an older sibling who was panicking because the free school meals vouchers email hadn't arrived.It was the evening before a bank holiday weekend and there was no food in the house. I will never forget the panic in that girl's voice. No school child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”
  • “We have had pupils and their families move in to hostels during the pandemic when they were evicted. They were rehoused but literally were given a house. No furniture, ovens, fridge, washing machine, no carpets. Nothing. We rallied as a school and furnished two homes.”
  • “In 20 years teaching I have never seen the situation so bad.”
  • “We provide free uniforms and free breakfasts. We have used school laptops to help some.”
  • “We have children that aren't clothed properly, without coats in winter, or have holes in shoes and my school’s Inclusion Team are excellent at working with the families to get them the support they need quickly and efficiently. We also have a stock of spare clothes that on occasion we can give to families.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: "It is now beyond doubt that child poverty is on the rise. The effects can last a lifetime, and young people have one chance in education. There is no doubt, too, that schools and colleges have been going beyond the call of duty for them during this past year, as they always do.

“The government, by contrast, spent much of 2020 voicing warm words about its concern for the disadvantaged including when mounting arguments for the wider opening of schools and colleges in September and January. Yet, sadly and unsurprisingly, it has persistently failed to deliver for the young people in poverty whose families need real support and action.

“The government has been on the wrong side of history for too long, and its playing fair-weather friend to disadvantaged young people fools nobody. The chancellor Rishi Sunak is currently choosing to remove the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and not providing any support to families with children.”

Supporting students’ recovery

Smaller class sizes and curriculum flexibility will be two of the headline demands to emerge from the National Education Union (NEU) as it meets virtually for its annual conference.

In addition teachers want to see more opportunities for exercise, increased practical learning, and increased teacher numbers.

The NEU has published the findings in its State of Education survey, which involved more than 10,000 members.

The survey, which was conducted in the run-up to full school re-opening on March 8, asked respondents to outline their priorities for helping students to recover from more than a year of lockdowns, remote education and disrupted learning.

Top of the list, with 82 per cent support among the respondents, is curriculum flexibility so that schools can decide what their priorities are for both learning and wellbeing.

Increasing sport (68 per cent), practical learning (66 per cent), and small group work (62 per cent) were other well supported priorities.

Elsewhere in the survey, the NEU members said that “Covid keepers” to emerge from the pandemic included new ways of working with technology (69 per cent), greater levels of family communication (37 per cent), online parents’ evenings (57 per cent), and smaller class sizes (46 per cent).

State of Education Survey 2021: Which of the following do you think are important to support students? (Source: NEU)

  • Flexibility in the curriculum so we can decide at school/college level what is important for learning and wellbeing: 82 per cent
  • Opportunities for sport and exercise: 68 per cent
  • Increasing creative and practical learning: 66 per cent
  • Being able to learn through small group work: 62 per cent
  • Increasing the number of teachers/lecturers: 51 per cent
  • More one-on-one time with their regular teachers/lecturers to aid differentiation: 46 per cent
  • Tuition programmes: 21 per cent
  • A strong focus on delivering all of the existing curriculum: 10 per cent
  • Extending school days or term lengths: Two per cent

The teachers in the survey rejected some of the government’s mooted approaches to the “catch-up” agenda, with only two per cent supporting extended school days or terms. Only one in five backed tuition programmes despite the government having placed the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) at the heart of its response.

Elsewhere in the survey, the respondents want the government to prioritise keeping staff workload at acceptable levels (85 per cent), reduce the pressure on staff of accountability measures such as Ofsted and performance tables (77 per cent), and to reduce child poverty (68 per cent).

Responding to the findings, Dr Bousted said: “The message is clear: we need to steer a course beyond Covid which rights the historic faults of the education system in this country and the distorted priorities of those who run it.

“If the government is serious about building back better, then they should take on board these views. Education professionals have been on the frontline, either virtual or physical, throughout the last twelve months and it is their insights on what has worked best that should be taken forward.

“The genie is out of the bottle so there is no reason to stick by the dead wood of a bloated curriculum, excessive accountability and oversized classes. All are now discredited, not just in the eyes of school and college staff but of parents too. The world has changed because of Covid and the education system should change with it."

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