In the fifth richest country in the world, 4.5 million children are living in poverty. Schools are supposed to be places where every child, regardless of their background, gets a chance to succeed. Education is a way of getting children out of poverty. But in the run up to this week’s National Education Union conference, investigations and surveys have revealed harrowing stories of children who are struggling to cope with a whole array of problems before they enter the school gates on a morning and after they leave – which, of course, affects their performance in school.
One NEU survey of 8,600 school staff found that poverty had a detrimental impact on pupils’ education. When asked to identify specific impacts on education resulting from poverty, 78% mentioned fatigue, 76% said poor concentration and 75% said poor behaviour.
Children come to school hungry because they haven’t had breakfast or an evening meal the night before. They don’t have clean uniform. The Universal Credit system means that in many cases, parents are not receiving enough money to feed their children and wash their clothes. This is humiliating for children who are bullied and compare themselves – their clothes and their packed lunches – to their peers from wealthier families.
The significant lack of social housing means that families are left on a long waiting list; by the time they get an adequate place to live their child may have left school. Even where families are in social housing, they often live in cramped conditions. If students arrive at school tired from lack of sleep, having not done their homework because they don’t have space to do it, they are already behind their peers from middle-class backgrounds.
1 in 10 children eligible for free school meals are not receiving them. Currently, parents apply for free school meals through the government website, but free school meals are not a choice, they are a necessity for some families. Children should be automatically enrolled on the register for free school meals based on household income when parents apply for child benefit. This would get rid of the stigma for parents surrounding free school meals and be one less thing to worry about.
Schools have become centres for social services; teachers often spend their own money on food, underwear and toiletries for their students. But these teachers are underpaid for the hours they work; they are under pressure to manage increasing class sizes while facing pay cuts.
Of course, schools are the perfect place to make change, impact children’s lives and support the local community, but ultimately, they cannot afford to sustain necessary schemes. The government must increase school funding, especially in areas with a higher population of students from low-income backgrounds, so the school can put on breakfast clubs, provide uniform and buy stationery, so teachers are not using their own money to do this. With extra funding, schools could put on homework clubs and after-school sports and music clubs – these activities are, for many children, the most memorable and enjoyable part of primary school yet they are being lost because of tight budgets from the Conservative government. It is through these schemes that children will be given fairer educational opportunities and struggling parents will feel supported.
Our government urgently needs to increase social security support and address the failing Universal Credit system, as these inhumane cuts are directly increasing child poverty – putting pressure on teachers and denying children a fair education. The kindness of overworked and underpaid teachers is inspiring, but it must be appreciated by the government and backed up by funding to give children the education they need.