Growing child poverty is affecting children’s learning in the UK, according to a recent National Education Union survey. However, schools and education staff are doing their utmost to provide the services and essentials of daily life to help disadvantaged families.
A staggering 87 per cent of education personnel in the UK say that poverty is impacting significantly on the learning of their students. This was a key finding or a joint survey by the National Education Union (NEU) and the Child Poverty Action Group of a sample of NEU members – school leaders, teachers and school support personnel – in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The survey revealed the extent to which poverty is damaging the educational opportunities for children from poor families, with six out of 10 respondents saying that the situation had worsened since 2015. “Heart-breaking” was the description most commonly used by NEU members to describe the critical situation of many poor children and families. They noted children wearing worn-out shoes and highlighted how some pupils were unable to do homework because they have no stationery.
The survey also highlights the extent to which schools are stepping in to fill the gaps left by the cuts to statutory services and voluntary and community organisations. Schools have become a lifeline for poor families by providing the daily essentials – such as food, clothing and, in a small number of cases, emergency loans – for families with nowhere else to go for help. They are also subsidising breakfast clubs, enrichment activities, and equipment for courses at secondary level to ensure no child loses out because their family is poor.
Individual teachers, school leaders, and teaching assistants also provide essential items, including food, books, writing materials, Physical Education kit, uniforms, sanitary protection, personal hygiene products and transport costs.
“The level of child poverty teachers and school staff are witnessing on a daily basis is having a dreadful effect on the life chances and education of far too many children and young people,” said NEU joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney.
He said it was “shocking that, in one of the richest countries in the world, we have children without appropriate clothes or shoes, who go hungry every day, who cannot afford sanitary protection or who have no stationery to do their homework”.
Courtney said that the survey shows that “schools will always do whatever they can to help families who are struggling, including running food banks in schools or staff spending their own money to feed children. But this should not be happening.” He emphasised that “schools cannot be expected to provide sticking-plaster solutions to a problem of the Government’s making”.
Must do better
Courtney also called it “a scandal” that 4.1 million children (30 per cent) now live below the official poverty line. “This number has risen over the last three years and is projected to reach 5.2 million by 2021-2022 under current policies”, he said. “More than two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families”. Support services for families who are struggling are being vastly reduced or cut to the bone. According to Courtney, “we can and must do better as a society. Our Government cannot continue to preside over such inequality and misery.”
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