The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Have you poverty proofed your school?

Prosperity for all? Nowhere near. John Dabell looks at how poverty proofing can be achieved in the classroom.

Britain has a deep social mobility problem and there are considerable inequalities in educational attainment which are linked to social disadvantage. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts the number of children living in poverty will soar to a record 5.2 million by 2022. A storm is brewing.

After years of budget cutting and a shrinking welfare state, austerity has changed everything and narrowed aspirations. Poverty is a huge feature of the UK’s social and economic landscape and the gap between the better-off and the least well-off is growing.

You might believe that all children should have equality of opportunity and life chances should not be affected by where you were born or what you were born as. Making that a reality is a Herculean task, but mountains are there to be climbed, not looked at.  

What can schools do?

It starts with awareness that the school experience is a costly one. The Children’s Commission on Poverty: Cost of the School Day Inquiry says that 70% of parents have struggled with the cost of school.

We can’t make assumptions about what people can afford. Understanding issues related to the impact of socio-economic deprivation on the experiences of children and young people in school is paramount.

This is about being tuned into how school structures, policies and practices affect children from low income households and where difficulties and financial barriers to participation exist throughout the school day. It is essential to go under the bonnet and see if your school’s policy and practice doesn’t inadvertently discriminate or stigmatise pupils whose families have less financial resources.

Children shouldn’t feel shame, stigma or left out because of family income pressures but they do. Many dread non-uniform days because they lack decent casual clothes to wear so taking a day off can be a better option than run the risk of being bullied. Asking children to donate to charity can be hard because their family might be relying on charitable donations themselves.    

The barriers some children face are life-shaping and soul-destroying. The poorest may not have access to the correct uniform, PE kit or computers to carry out their homework. Lunch, trips, fun events and clubs all add up and are key barriers to children’s participation and experience.

Cash-strapped schools can’t change society and they can’t eradicate poverty. However, as frontline organisations they can do plenty to help disadvantaged pupils and make a difference.

Schools can pro-actively engage with adopting a poverty-proofing approach to the school day to lessen poverty stress and shame associated with family income pressures.

This involves taking practical steps to remove poverty-based exclusion and stigma and protecting children from disadvantage. Being fully inclusive and having whole-school buy-in is key. 

Poverty proofing

Looking at the school year with affordability in mind by spacing events and activities out is an obvious way to poverty proof. When there are lots of costs that come at once this can be overwhelming.

Thinking about how school uniforms could be made less expensive is another area of poverty proofing that demands deeper thinking. Education in Scotland recommends the following.  

  • Calculating the total cost of the required school uniform and weighing this against the amount made available to families through clothing grants.
  • Considering appropriate responses to breaches of the uniform code that are likely to be linked to a child living in poverty.
  • Setting up ‘swap shops’ and other such systems (perhaps promoting these as a form of environmentalism, thus challenging the stigma of second-hand clothing).
  • Recycling of lost property/items of uniform that are no longer needed or have been outgrown.

Other ideas include offering pupils a free drink and snack before exams, improving IT access, offering more breakfast clubs, changing the ways school meals are administered and cutting the number of non-uniform days.

Changing mindset and culture

Schools can get help with poverty proofing ideas and strategies through the charity Children North East. They help schools to poverty proof the school day and provide a toolkit to lessen stigma, remove obstacles to learning and help schools explore the most effective way to spend pupil premium. 

The toolkit involves a school audit process questioning pupils, staff, parents and governors followed by the creation of a personalised action plan to address any unintended stigmatising policies or practices. Following a review visit, schools get the opportunity to be awarded an accreditation.

The scheme encourages schools to adopt simple measures to help those living in poverty. Their strapline is:

‘Ensure all activity and planned activity in schools does not identify, exclude, treat differently or make assumptions about those children whose household income or resources are lower than others.’

Top tips

  • Actively challenge any staff prejudices or stereotypes and provide information to dispel poverty myths.
  • Rethink registers so that FSM doesn’t appear next to a pupil’s name projected on the whiteboard.
  • Don’t just think about pupils in receipt of FSMs; over half of all children living in poverty are in working households, struggling with low pay.
  • Use evidence to help you decide the best way to spend pupil premium and involve children and parents in this. Look at the barriers to learning first, then select your interventions.
  • Ensure governors are aware of requirements in relation to pupil premium accountability and reducing the attainment gap.
  • Invest in training for teachers and governors to explore the impact poverty has on the lives of pupils.
  • Limit the number of charities you raise money for. Only ever ask for donations and consider a family payment to help families with multiple children.
  • Make dressing up clothes, or resources to make costumes, available so that no child is left out of dressing up days/events.
  • Encourage parents to give thank you notes to teachers at Christmas rather than presents.
  • Provide spare PE kits.  

Looking for any aspect of your school where pupils may become aware of financial differences is extremely important. For example, asking children what they did at the weekend and holidays can lead to less well-off children feeling awkward and uncomfortable.

Poverty proofing schools helps disadvantaged pupils to relax and not feel under pressure because of their backgrounds. An example of this is the school that have banned pencil cases in a bid to stop pupils from poor families being stigmatised.

And finally

Going through a poverty proofing process promotes a shift in whole-school ethos and culture and the opportunity to make a difference. When barriers to learning are removed there is clear evidence of increased attendance and attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

Schools that fully commit to poverty proofing aren’t afraid to have hard conversations. They keep equality on the agenda at all times and ensure that poverty is not a barrier to success.

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