Averting Disaster: The impact of poverty on disadvantaged children is a crisis we can’t ignore

By Dr Angela Donkin, Chief Social Scientist at NFER

Thursday 3 August 2023

This blog was first published by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on Tuesday 2 August 2022.

I am certainly not alone in worrying about the impacts rising living costs may have on children’s welfare, particularly those who are disadvantaged. But how much evidence is there to justify this concern, and what can be done to address some of these real challenges?

Firstly, let’s address the potential size of the problem. Latest official poverty statistics show that one in eight children were living in households below the poverty line in 2020/21, that’s 3.9 million children.

But to understand trends in the last year we must look at other data sources. The Trussell Trust shows an increase of 14% in the distribution of emergency food parcels to people in crisis, with over 2.1 million provided between April 2021 and March 2022. More than 800,000 of these parcels went to children. It is the first time the Trussell Trust has distributed more than two million parcels. This group runs only two in every three foodbanks, meaning the total figures for the UK will be worse. For the majority of those in poverty, there is no flex remaining in their budgets.

People are telling us they’re skipping meals so they can feed their children. That they are turning off essential appliances so they can afford internet access for their kids to do their homework.” (Trussell Trust)

What will further inflationary increases have on these households?

This situation precedes the 54% increase in energy bills at the beginning of April. If we take the quote from the Trussell Trust, then for some, the only remaining option is to cut food for children and the internet for homework. The evidence presented, which is publicly available, illustrates a high risk to children’s welfare.

Poverty brings further impacts; more children will be cold and hungry; physical health and attendance at school may suffer; and parents will be stressed, potentially impacting negatively on early years’ development.

Valiant efforts by teachers to reduce the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children, and to ‘level up’ will be so much harder.

Another concern is one of children’s mental health and wellbeing. We know from our own research in schools with high levels of disadvantaged children, that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) are severely overstretched and not meeting the needs of children.

These pressures are only going to deepen. Child mental health and wellbeing issues are evident across various socio-economic groups, but are more prevalent among disadvantaged families.

Wellbeing is a more generic sense of satisfaction with life, and we know that in 2018 – well before the pandemic – children across the UK were 68th in terms of their satisfaction with life, at the bottom of league tables comparing 71 countries across the world. Only 53% reported feeling satisfied with their life, compared to 67% on average.

A sense of belonging to school

We wanted to know why. What was driving this? Our further analyses of the data illustrated that the most important factor linked to wellbeing was that children felt a sense of belonging to school, and this was largely driven by having good relationships with friends, then family, then teachers.

We need to ensure that these inflationary pressures do not further impact on the ability of children to develop good relationships. Previous research by the Marmot Review Team (2011) has highlighted for instance that poor quality and cold housing can deter adolescents from inviting friends over. What could schools and communities do to provide warm free spaces for friends to meet?

In March, the Child Poverty Action Group published the 'Cost of having fun at school'. The report covers the experiences of over 8,000 pupils as well as the views of parents and carers and has some concerning findings. Take for instance dress-up and non-uniform days, the costs and social pressures of these days sometimes makes children feel embarrassed and left out. Some pupils miss school on these days. School fairs, fundraising and charity events can be difficult if children haven’t got enough money to participate. In some schools, leavers' celebrations such as residential trips and school proms are costing families over £200. This is posing a big challenge for lower income parents who don't want children to miss out but can't afford the significant cost.

While those earning below a certain level will get free school meals, many families will be above the threshold for help, but will still struggle to meet the additional costs of heating and food this year.

To some extent, pupil premium payments may help to subsidise some school costs, but the value of the pupil premium has fallen back as funding increases have not kept up with inflation. This has contributed to schools with the lowest income intakes seeing the largest funding cuts since 2010, relative to those with more advantaged intakes. NFER data collected for the Sutton Trust revealed in May that a third of school leaders are utilising pupil premium funding to plug other gaps in their school budgets.

What can be done?

A survey in April reported that a third of school leaders anticipated going into deficit as a direct result of rising energy costs which could lead to cuts in teaching, maintenance and equipment budgets, or cold schools. School leaders should be lobbying for inflationary increases to budgets and detailing what will not happen if these are not met.

Inflation and rising wages in the wider labour market means there will continue to be pressure to increase teacher pay to maintain competitiveness and attract and retain teachers. Our analysis shows that the government's current medium-term plans for pay are insufficient to address teacher supply challenges. Any further increases will need to be funded to ensure they do not lead to staff redundancies to balance school budgets, which would compound rather than address teacher supply issues.

Children’s health and wellbeing is a real concern, and we need the availability of CAHMS support to improve very rapidly to deal with the increased pressures the cost-of-living crisis will bring, literally to save lives in some cases. Schools and colleges are already playing a key role in balancing their support of developing positive relationships and reducing the social pressures felt by some of their pupils, mindful of the inflationary pressures impacting lower income parents. However, they are running out of options to alleviate the impact.

Eligibility for free school meals should be extended to help struggling families who are likely to need additional support. Eligibility for free school meals is currently based on a household income threshold of £7,400 a year. This has not changed since 2018. While less well-off households who are currently not in receipt of free school meals will increasingly be feeling the pinch of energy and food price increases, this will not impact on their eligibility Action to increase the incomes of low income families should also be considered.

The impacts this crisis will have on the attainment gap are uncertain. We know that pupils whose families are eligible for Universal Credit are currently remaining eligible for free school meals for longer (even if their parents are no longer on Universal Credit) than children who have previously been eligible. This will make it increasingly difficult for school leaders and policymakers to understand how the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is changing over time. Action is needed by policymakers now to ensure we can hold the government to account for progress in reducing the gap and improving outcomes of pupils from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.